Blog Excerpts

"Punctuation Hero" or Vandal?

In the United Kingdom, the apostrophe is rapidly disappearing from street signs. But one man has decided to take matters into his own hands.

Stefan Gatward, a 62-year-old former soldier, was annoyed by a street sign near his home in Tunbridge Wells reading "St Johns Close" instead of "St John's Close." So he "decided to launch a one-man crusade against 'dumbed down' Britain, and picked up a paintbrush to insert a missing apostrophe." The Daily Mail lauded him as a "punctuation hero," while the Telegraph dubbed him an "apostrophist." One of his neighbors, however, has a different term for him: "vandal." From the Daily Mail:

He was immediately accused of being a vandal by one neighbour, and his amendments have been scratched off by others who apparently prefer the wrong version.

The 62-year-old's defence of the apostrophe comes after Birmingham council announced it would scrap the punctuation from council signs for the sake of 'simplicity'.

'He told me I was wrong. He called me a vandal and a graffiti artist,' Mr Gatward said.

'He tried to tell me that the Post Office would not deliver to the street if you put in an apostrophe.' ...

'I feel very strongly about the English language. These days people write in text-speak and nobody knows how to use the apostrophe.'

He added: 'I'm not going to go round with a can of paint and change everything - it would be a full-time job.'

Judging by the 300+ comments on the Daily Mail article, British readers are overwhelmingly on Mr. Gatward's side. (They are not so concerned, however, about the missing period in the abbreviation "St" — a British punctuation style not typically followed in American usage.) Somewhere, Lynne Truss is beaming.

For more on the disappearance of apostrophes from British street signs, see Arnold Zwicky's Language Log post, "Apostrophe catastrophe." And in two other Language Log posts — "Angry linguistic mobs with torches" and "'Grammar vigilantes' brought to justice," Mark Liberman reports on an American counterpart to the "St Johns Close" story: the "Typo Eradication Advancement League" (TEAL). Two members of TEAL were arrested last year for vandalism after "correcting" the punctuation on a historic marker at the Grand Canyon.

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Thursday August 27th 2009, 7:20 AM
Comment by: William M. (Boston, MA)
Is it possible that all the apostrophes being omitted on British street signage are migrating to the US? I know I'm not the only fan of VT's WOTD to weep inwardly over signs like "Banana's $1/lb", Genuine Hudson Bay Blanket's" and "All Sale's Final." This mistaken substitution of possessives for plurals seems to be on the increase. Does anyone have any theories about why?
Thursday August 27th 2009, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Everyone needs to read "Eats, shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." The book comes with several pages of punctuation decals in the back so that the reader can use them to make the kinds of repairs talked about here.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I salute you, Mr. Stefan Gatward, you have all my admiration and support. I feel myself annoyed whenever seeing another sign which says: “Disabled ramp” (instead of ramp for disabled people), as if the ramp is disabled!
Thursday August 27th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
William: The "banana's" type of over-punctuation is known as the greengrocer's apostrophe and has been with us for a long time. Wikipedia has a decent treatment of the phenomenon.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
After reading the article above and also the linked, well-written and thorough "Apostrophe Catastrophe", I note that there is one apostrophe use/misuse that is not mentioned in either article, and it is a sin that I have committed myself.

When forming the plural of an all-caps abbreviation, many people use an apostrophe: Many LCSW's were there. She played her beloved LP's on her battered phonograph. Five EMT's were at the accident scene. The children practiced their ABC's. The CSI's all agreed that the cause of death was drowning. Perhaps there's a rule allowing such a use, but I have not heard of it.

Of course an apostrophe is needed in a possessive form (The veteran CSI's opinion was accepted) or in a contraction (The LCSW's a friend of the family) , but why do we put that apostrophe in the plurals - out of carelessness, out of habit, or because it just "looks right"? Have other readers seen this error? Any thoughts about it?

By the way, I intentionally left the periods out of the abbreviations because they are so common that they are often seen period-less, but maybe that's a grammatical blunder, too!

Kristie Francis
Coarsegold, CA
Thursday August 27th 2009, 3:19 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Kristine: These choices in punctuation really come down to a matter of style rather than what is "grammatical" or not. But you're right: it's generally accepted that the plural form of an all-caps abbreviation does not require an apostrophe. The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.), for instance, says: "Capital letters used as words, abbreviations that contain no interior periods, and numerals used as nouns form the plural by adding s." So that would cover cases like LCSWs, EMTs, and CSIs.

You note that these abbreviations are "so common that they are often seen period-less," and that's an important distinction in forming the plural. The Chicago Manual of Style goes on to say: "To avoid confusion, lowercase letters and abbreviations with two or more interior periods or with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s." Examples include M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s.

Even if you follow these rules, there's a good amount of variation in deciding whether an abbreviation has interior periods or not (and therefore whether the plural should use an apostrophe). The New York Times, for instance, uses periods for nearly all abbreviations -- thus you'll find such plurals in the Times as I.C.B.M.'s, Y.M.C.A.'s, and U.R.L.'s. That's simply their house style.
Thursday August 27th 2009, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Ben; your comments are helpful. I'm surprised to know that the question of whether to "apostrophize" the plural of abbreviations can be answered by the presence or lack of periods! I personally don't agree that an apostrophe is desirable in a word like Y.M.C.A.s "to avoid confusion" - it ADDS to my confusion!

I think there should be a tax or fine on the over-use of apostrophes; the fine should be world-wide, and anyone who catches the offender in the act of inappropriate apostrophizing can collect the tax on the spot. When this law is enacted, I will go to Paris in the hope that I will have the opportunity to say "Aha! You must pay an apostrophe fee, Fifi!"
Friday August 28th 2009, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
Kristine and Ben: There is only one LSU so apostrophes are not a problem.
Saturday August 29th 2009, 7:31 PM
Comment by: Scribe
I find the preponderance of readers' comments in the Daily Mail favoring Mr. Gatward's bizarre behavior disturbing, to say the least.

What we have in the new style of street sign is the deliberate omission of a superfluous punctuation mark in a communication setting dominated by pragmatic constraints—-a setting, furthermore, where the chance of mistaken interpretation due to an omitted apostrophe is virtually nil. The rules governing use of punctuation marks are scarcely more germane to such a setting than they would be to oral announcements or traffic icons. While not insane, Mr. Gatward’s campaign is, I conclude, radically misconceived.
Saturday August 29th 2009, 11:37 PM
Comment by: Jennifer H.
Perhaps he (Mr. Gatward) is just looking for something to control. His world has changed a lot through the years. He must hold an intimate connection to the written word and is looking to maintain some stability in a world where only the constant is change. It's not for me to say if it was right or wrong of him to paint an apostrophe - I see him as a kind of colorful person.
Monday August 31st 2009, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Michael T. (Blue Bell, PA)
A little white-out can go a long way! Personally, I can see the point of having abbreviations use an apostrophe, even without periods, since the "'s" would indicate a contraction rather than a possessive or plural.

While some of these are matters of style, others like "all sale's final" are just careless and upset me more.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Unless one particularly enjoys getting upset about these types of things, I would think it would be better for one's health to practice relaxation techniques in the face of perceived offenses to spelling and punctuation. This business with vandalizing property is over the top; you can't go around defacing things due to a sense of personal outrage, no matter how righteously you feel about the correctness of your cause. (Simply imagine the extension of this tactic into the realm of any property that might offend anyone about anything, and their concomitant right to then "fix" it.)

Evidence suggests that the grasp of the average English speaker (writer) of the intricacies of the use of commas, apostrophes, etc., has never been strong. (Dryden wrote his plurals with apostrophes.) Among other things, this suggests that perhaps the rules are too complex for ordinary writing; it requires relatively advanced schooling to master the arcana of English orthography, and why should that be? Shouldn't the system of writing be straightforward enough to be mastered by people with a basic education? If it's not, what's at fault, the writer or the system?

In any event, it is delusional to think that the millions of English writers who currently have difficulties with punctuation are somehow going to master it in the face of, say, vandalized street signs. Better, as I say, to take some deep, cleansing breaths and just walk on. Or, for the more analytically inclined, to instead work on a model that describes how punctuation _actually_ is used as opposed to how it "should" be used.

PS One reason that the apostrophe in particular seems difficult is that it _makes no sense_. If the apostrophe marks elision, how do you explain to the average writer what's being elided in a possessive? And why then that possessive nouns get an apostrophe but possessive pronouns do not? It might be helpful to throw in an explanation as to what the advantage is of the system we have now, communications-wise.

PPS For Louis Menand's take-down of Lynne Truss in the NYer, see this:
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 11:27 PM
Comment by: Mark G. (Spokane, WA)
Perhaps the true spelling for the change in grammar rules needs to be spelled differently. Such as PUNKUATION!?!
Sunday September 6th 2009, 8:56 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
I have been following the apostrophic comments - thoughtful, insightful, perceptive. My comment today is none of those things; I am simply going to propose a word for certain abbreviations that I mentioned in one of my previous comments (Aug. 27). These abbreviations are very common and well known: YMCA, USA, NFL, EMT, CSI, ASAP, FYI, etc. Since they have been around for so long that they no longer have periods, I suggest that we refer to them as post-menopausal abbreviations, or PMAs. So, what do you think? All in favor of this term, try to work it into normal conversations as often as possible; it's sure to catch on!
Monday September 7th 2009, 11:00 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Good 'un, Kristine. I hope it catches on. (Although I have to say that it might be a long time before I have a conversation into which I could possibly work PMA.)
Saturday October 3rd 2009, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Eleanor D. (Huntington Beach, CA)
In the U.S., I see the apostrophe used with a plural noun quite often, and I hate it. Example: "The boy's ran home from school."

God help us; it's everywhere.

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