Pedants have their uses, but why such fury over apostrophes? | Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett
Should this possessive company be more plural? Photograph: BBC News/PA

Whatever persuaded Bristol’s self-styled “grammar vigilante” to be interviewed by Radio 4, subsequent public acclaim has presumably justified the risk of prosecution for criminal damage.

For anyone who missed the show, this anonymous individual has spent the past 13 years defacing shop signs under cover of darkness. His excuse is that he is improving them, by removing redundant apostrophes and supplying missing ones, using a two-pronged “apostrophiser” he designed for that purpose.

True, he had his critics, even within the pedant community. For some, it spoiled the story that the Bristol man could not be called a grammar vigilante, being so egregiously in the wrong. Apostrophes are not grammar, but punctuation. Grammar and punctuation are not interchangeable terms. Therefore the owner of, say, Cambridge Motor’s may want to think again about being corrected by a man who, as well as prowling about by night in a furtive manner, lacks the pedantic authority for this activity. For any affected Bristol shopkeeper who really respects the language, it’s up there with realising your Banksy is a fake.

For the most part, the response to this solecism was forgiving, since he was plainly addressing a creeping social evil which the Apostrophe Protection Society has been powerless, thus far, to stop. In fact, his instant elevation, on a gale of indulgent chuckles, to middle England superhero suggests the market for grammatical leadership remains undiminished by recent interventions by language scholars, to the effect that it is sense and context that count. Stand by, come Christmas, for The Bristol Apostrophiser’s English Grammar: Lynne Truss with added DIY and vandalism.

As ever, in discussions among grammar (and punctuation) enthusiasts, supporters of the Bristol man’s were frank – unless it was intemperate overstatement – about the pain that appears to be routine for the language’s countless super-tasters. It is not enough, as it might be for the moderately qualified pedant – the kind I consider myself to be – for them to headshake or exhale over idiocies committed by people who should know better. Grammar vigilantes are more likely to be moved, you gather, to express hate, horror, outrage, distraction. They can’t, like the Bristol man, abide it. When they register something grammatically ignorant they report having to wince, scream, cringe, shudder or take a sharp intake of breath; they feel their teeth grinding or put on edge; they are evidently tormented by so many pet hates and offensive sights as must make it unendurable to walk down the average British high street. First Boots, then Waterstones, Barclays, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons – thank God, if pedants are not to starve, for McDonald’s and Sainsbury’s.

Yet more suffering, to judge by punctuation man’s fans, is inflicted by shop staff asking, callously and tautologously, for pin numbers – “there is no need to use ‘number’ again”; by people who say “amazing”, when it’s not, or “see you later”, when “you will probably never see them again in your life”; by television commentators who say “the best team won” about “a game involving two teams”. On the bright side, punctuation man is not the only one fighting back. One woman had already “talked to the butcher about his chickens leg’s”.

Incidentally, if that butcher would like to come forward – along with any other officiously corrected parties – there probably isn’t a droll Radio 4 programme in it for them. Sympathy for punctuation man’s shamed shopkeepers has been as conspicuously absent as you’d expect for any superhero victims. They had it coming. Anyone who can write “gentlemans outfitters” deserves to have our hero’s sticky-backed plastic splatted on his shop front at midnight, followed by a public rebuke for letting down the younger generation.

Maybe it’s the very intensity of rage brought on by irregular language that interferes with the sort of strategic thinking that might help grammar sufferers address, or even reverse, the anarchy that afflicts them. As much as Bristol’s kiddies will, it’s to be hoped, have benefited from punctuation man, supposing they ever noticed “Amys’ nail’s”, that cannot approach what might be gained, for civilisation, by continuous correction of London tube signs and maps, seen by millions. With nothing heavier than a Sharpie and a bottle of Tipp-ex, he could standardise the distressing District line juxtaposition of Barons, then Earl’s Court; spare children the mystifying co-existence of King’s Cross and Parsons Green – once, that is, it has been confirmed whether parsons is a singular or plural possessive.

But as punctuation man and his supporters will know better than anyone, many rules that obsess them are either of relatively recent making and/or, in the opinion of some relatively respectable authors, including George Bernard Shaw, inane. He wrote of apostrophes: “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Long before him, Bristol’s tradespersons can invoke, as the grammar police will know, role models including Wordsworth, Thomas Gray and Charlotte Brontë. In his excellent Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, the linguist David Crystal quotes Byron, writing to his publisher: “I am, I fear, a sad hand at your punctuation.” Possibly, to the avenging pedant, this only underlines the debt of the above to their more accomplished proof readers – in Wordsworth’s case, the chemist Humphry Davy. An arguably disproportionate sensitivity to the world’s apostrophe fails is not always matched, in grammar’s champions, by any comparable sensitivity to language, history or context, including their own.

It was only after a US vigilante, Jeff Deck, blogged about his handiwork inside a Grand Canyon landmark, the 1932 Desert View Watchtower, that police discovered that an original sign, one hand-painted for the building by its celebrated architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, had been defaced with permanent marker and Wite-Out. While correcting her paintwork, it was reported, Deck had not noticed “the historic nature of the Watchtower sign”.

A form of OCD and connections with a certain (“less agreeable”) kind of personality are among the explanations advanced for extreme responses to grammatical errors. David Crystal thinks “people feel they can get to grips with punctuation more readily than with other linguistic topics and so are more prepared to speak out about it”. But that explains neither why many competent punctuators (in which group, as colleagues would confirm, I cannot include myself) are able to keep calm in the face of Cambridge Motor’s, nor why radical pedants get sufficiently exercised to start learned societies, mainly dedicated to telling people they’re wrong. None of the Bristol vigilante’s examples, after all, comes close to having the alleged potential to mislead that apostrophe enthusiasts claim for their dog-eating and panda-related possessives.

Of course, the people best placed to account for their responses are grammar control freaks themselves. “It’s just not a good example for society,” says the Bristol man. “It winds me up.” Fair enough. And if the inconsistent use of apostrophes ranks high among offensive aspects of Bristol’s streets, that city must be lovely indeed.

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