The Apoplectic Apostrophe
Earlier this month, I was walking to a 3:00 appointment in downtown Grand Rapids. A block from my destination, I noticed the following sign with a grammar mistake. (The word “Wraps” was meant to be plural, but the printer had made it possessive by mistakenly adding an apostrophe.)
After photographing the sign (to use in a future seminar), I went inside and found the manager behind the counter. I told him that I was a language consultant who gave seminars on writing and grammar, then alerted him to the mistake on his (expensive) signage, to which he replied… [choose one].
A) “Really? It’s been up for a week and no one’s mentioned that before.”
B) “Wow. I’ll let the owner know when I see him.”
C) “This is embarrassing. We paid $150 for that sign.”
D) “Huh, I had no idea. Thanks for letting us know. Can I give you a free coke?”
E) “You came in here just to tell me that? Go [expletive] yourself!”
You guessed it: (E). As he turned his back and walked away, I realized I was no longer needed there and left to make my 3:00 appointment down the street. No kind act goes unpunished, I guess, but his words stung, and I struggled to focus during my appointment, being haunted by the verbal slap in the face.
That night, as my wife and I were lying in bed recounting the day’s events, I recalled the story and began to tell it to her. I needed to consult with her, she being my Touchstone of Reality, and see if I had been off base in the Great Apostrophe Meltdown. Although slowly drifting asleep, she jolted to full alertness as the punchline (“go f… yourself” ) was repeated.
At first shocked that someone would talk to her Boy-Scout-like husband like that, she asked, “How did you respond?” I told her, “I couldn’t do anything but leave; I was crestfallen.”
“‘Crestfallen?’” Kim asked, bursting into laughter. “Who uses words like that? Honey, it’s no wonder you get yourself into trouble like this. You are like Niles and Frasier (from the 1990s sit-com “Frasier” ) when the rest of the world is like Marty. The manager probably thought you were insulting his English.”
The ensuing conversation determined that the average person may indeed be insecure about his/her English skills but that the manager certainly lacked in customer service manners. The greater question is, how would you respond if someone came to tell you about a mistake in your store’s signage? Would you take it in the same vein if told that your men’s room was out of towels or a light bulb was burned out? Or would you see it as a personal affront to your language skills and intelligence?
To do some research on this, I checked to see how our cousins across the pond deal with issues of spelling and punctuation. The British are a good reference point, since Americans have long revered their use of bowler hats, the institution of the Royal Family, and the fact that they’ve spoken English a lot longer (and more charmingly) than we Yanks have.
To my chagrin (and amusement), I learned that they have as much trouble with these issues as we Americans have. A recent study showed that half of the U.K. doesn’t know how to use punctuation properly.
In fact, Brits have so much trouble remembering rules of punctuation, the Birmingham City Council recently told its roadways and signage division to stop using apostrophes altogether. This means St. Paul’s Square will in the future read St. Pauls Square.
This concession has not met with universal approval in the region, however. One local has made himself famous by going around the town and adding the missing apostrophes with a Sharpie. Seen by some as a vandal, 62-year-old accountant Steven Gatward defends his personal crusade, “I think one should stand up for things, and language is worth standing up for. The trouble is that everything is dumbed down now.”
On this side of the Pond, a kindred soul has launched an online war against bad apostrophe use. “Claire” urges all vigilante grammarians to unite behind the cause of accuracy: “I’m not up on all of my grammar rules. I don’t know when to use a semi-colon instead of a colon. I vacillate between the American and British rules regarding punctuation after quotation marks, but I DO know when to use an apostrophe and when to rub that apostrophe out, and, by god, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Not every writer takes the topic of spelling and punctuation so seriously. A comment attributed to Mark Twain gives this more generous view: “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.” And wise-guy columnist Dave Barry once wrote that the main purpose of the apostrophe in American English was to indicate “that an S was coming.”
Still, there was a case of a multi-million dollar contract being voided in Canada because of a comma mistake. Punctuation aficionados can read more here.
And of course, there is a comedic side to this topic. Decades ago, musician-comedian Victor Borge tried to help Americans understand punctuation marks by painting them with hand gestures and squeaks in a now-famous monologue. You can view it here on YouTube.
Of course, those of us who are meticulous about language use may always be ridiculed by the rest of the population. We will be called “anal” by some, “snobs” by others. Recall my loving wife’s remark, “Who TALKS like that?” All of this indicates room for disagreement about the importance of writing correctly.
My final point is simple. If your communication is important, use a spellchecker before sharing words with others. If the communication will have a wide audience and permanent viewing, have it professionally proofread. There is no sense sending dear Mom to her eternal reward with a mistake on her gravestone (see image below). And it makes poor business sense paying hundreds of dollars for a pita wrap sign with mistakes on it.
On the other hand, if you’re writing a quick and dirty note, go ahead and give it your best shot and then forget about it. We all make mistakes; it’s part of the human condition to err. I promise if the rest of the world takes its communication more seriously, I’ll give everyone a little more slack. Deal?
Notes for Second Language Speakers
apoplexy = rage, strong anger, getting red in the face (adjective: apoplectic = angry)
expletive = a strong word (usually a curse word) which is not identified for politeness’ sake
No kind act goes unpunished. = pessimistic saying that means that life is unfair and people can try to do good deeds and still end up in trouble (Real expression: No good act goes unrewarded.)
crestfallen = very sad, disappointed
touchstone = a reliable reference point
off base = misguided, out of touch with reality
meltdown = falling apart, coming undone, dissolution, breakdown
Boy Scout = reference to a young (maybe naive) man trained to be honest, kind, and diligent
Go fuck yourself. = a very rude way of dismissing someone, an insult [vulgar]
“Frasier” = popular American situation comedy about the differences in social class: two refined, highly educated, somewhat snobbish sons (Niles and Frasier) and their retired working class father (Marty) who live together in an up-scale, high-rise condo in Seattle
ensuing = following, coming afterwards
affront = insult
chagrin = embarrassment
a vandal = a person who destroys or defaces the property of others (verb: vandalize)
kindred soul = a like-minded person, someone with the same spirit or philosophy
to dumb down = to simplify, to make less rigorous
across the Pond = across the Atlantic Ocean (between Britain and the U.S.)
vigilante = person who attempts to enforce order without official status or permission (often done secretly)
not up on = not fully knowledgeable about
vacillate = to waver, have changing opinions
a wise guy = a person who is always trying to be funny (Pronounced with stress on “wise,” it is unrelated to the concept of “wisdom.” )
a monologue = a speech or comedic routine
meticulous = giving great care and attention
ridicule = to make fun of, laugh at, mock
anal (retentive) = having the strong need to control all aspects of one’s life
eternal reward = heaven; destination earned after death (a euphemism)
quick and dirty = fast but imperfect, aiming for timely results rather than total accuracy
your best shot = your best try, your most serious attempt
give someone slack = to not be so harsh or critical, to be somewhat flexible or forgiving
Deal? = Is that a deal? Can we agree to this?
BONUS VIDEO Here is a short clip from an Australian friend about the dangers of correcting people’s grammar.
And how timely that The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck would be released this week!