WHEN it emerged that Mid Devon district council was considering banning punctuation marks from new street signs, I doubt its councillors realised it would provoke quite such howls of protest.
The council said it could reduce potential confusion over street names, but organisations such as the Plain English Campaign and the Apostrophe Protection Society, along with language experts and politicians queued up to criticise the decision.
On Monday, perhaps trying to avert an own goal, the council leader said he would be recommending to the ruling cabinet committee that this policy was reversed because he didn’t find it acceptable that incorrect grammar was being used on the council’s street signs.
It beggars belief why anyone thought it made sense in the first place, but it does also raise the vexing question of when and where we should add an apostrophe. Poor grammar is something that can send the most mild-mannered of people apoplectic and even by writing this article I’m risking the wrath of the red ink brigade.
Steve Jenner, of the Plain English Campaign, says trying to remove apostrophes just doesn’t make sense. “It’s a classic example of dumbing down in action,” he says.
However, it’s not the first time this has been done. The book retailer Waterstones caused a bit of a stir last year after ditching the apostrophe in its name. “The shop was founded by Mr Waterstone and by losing the apostrophe it changes the meaning,” says Jenner.
“The reasoning behind it apparently was that it made it awkward for people searching on the internet. To some extent it does make it more difficult, but it doesn’t make it impossible, and the problem is where does it stop? Should we get rid of commas and full stops as well? We have grammar for a reason, it’s a marker that helps us to make sense of language.”
You don’t have to look far to find examples of people recklessly throwing apostrophes at words like confetti at a wedding, but at the same time many of us have grammatical blindspots. “People make mistakes with punctuation and to err is to be human, but to ignore them is just laziness,” says Jenner.
The conventions of grammar and punctuation have also fallen victim to the increasingly informal way we communicate with one another. Unlike a letter, an email, text message or a tweet is often more concerned with what is said, rather than how it’s said.
“In some contexts it’s okay because a text is a form of shorthand. It’s when it blows over into other areas that we start getting problems. Exam inspectors have noticed it creeping into students’ exam work and this is something that is regrettable,” says Jenner.
“I’ve even seen job applications for some quite serious jobs where there’s been all sorts of strange text speak used. The concern is that some people seem to think it’s okay and it’s not.”
We should all really know when to use “its” rather than “it’s”, and be able to tell the difference between “they’re”, “there” and “their,” but the picture becomes a little more foggy when we start talking about using “owing to” rather than “due to”.
There are also those for whom the incorrect use of reflexives (such as “myself” instead of “me”) makes their blood boil. But at what point do we stop focusing on the use of good grammar and start becoming pedants?
“It’s a charge we’ve faced many times, but if you have Baker’s View and it was named after someone called Mr Baker then it shouldn’t be Bakers View. Otherwise in a hundred years when people try and find out how the street got its name they’ll think people made bread there.
“Some people say this is just the thin end of the wedge, but it’s not and this does actually matter.”
The misuse of apostrophes is seen as part of a wider war against gobbledegook and buzz words. “That kind of language has moved out of offices and now we get menus offering pea crème brûlée, or mushy peas to you and me.”
But Jenner says there is a serious side to all this beyond simply trying to stem the tide of bad grammar. “When Chrissie Maher founded the Plain English Campaign back in the 70s, one of the reasons she started it was that an elderly lady who lived in her neighbourhood in Liverpool had to fill in a form to get her heating allowance.
“She couldn’t read the form, was too proud to ask for help and died from cold. So it really can be a matter of life and death – we’re not just being pedantic.”