Flying comma' sails through another skirmish

Just over four years ago the headline in ''PostScript'' read ''A catastrophe for the apostrophe''. It was admittedly bit of a slow news week, but it was an issue of some concern to those who don't like people messing about with the English language.

What prompted the headline was that authorities in Birmingham, England, had decided to scrap the apostrophe from all official notices including road signs and place names. Thus ''St Paul's Square'' became ''St Pauls Square'', ''Acock's Green'' changed to ''Acocks Green'', and so on.

English language aficionados will be disturbed to learn the apostrophe, sometimes known as the ''flying comma'', has come under attack again, this time in Devon, where they recently attempted to follow Birmingham's example. The move to meddle with apostrophes sparked cries of outrage, with local residents choking over their scones and clotted cream. As a result, the authorities in Devon performed a hasty grammatical U-turn and the apostrophe will live to fight another day in the west country. You may ask, why all this fuss over something most people totally ignore? Marie Claire of the Plain English Society has the answer: ''They are such sweet-looking things it would be nice to see the apostrophe treated with a little respect.''

Usage and abusage

The role of the apostrophe is basically to inform us whether there is a letter missing, or if a noun takes a possessive. Yet this seemingly innocent little item of punctuation is regularly a topic of hot debate. The apostrophe is probably the most abused punctuation mark, although commas, colons and semi-colons, exclamation marks and quotation marks all create havoc of their own. Then there are dashes, hyphens, full stops, elipses and things I have never even heard of. It is just as well we don't have to use punctuation marks when we speak, otherwise conversations would become extremely dodgy.

In a way it is encouraging to know that everyone struggles with the English language, particularly English people. Pick up any paper in England and you will regularly come across examples of ''it's'' or ''its'' being misused. But as the Daily Telegraph put it so splendidly in a headline: ''It really doesn't matter if its is it's or it's is its''. Now try saying that quickly after a couple of beers.

Blame text messaging

An entertaining book often referred to in discussion on grammar is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. The title comes from a panda joke which is too long to relate, but features a misplaced comma. Truss is passionate about punctuation and has no time for people, no matter how well-educated, who don't put their apostrophes in the right place.

Her stance is: ''If you persist in writing 'Good food at it's best' you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.''

Now that is passion.

The BBC's John Humphrys also has strong views on the problems facing the English language. He squarely blames text messaging, claiming, ''It is doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago.''

Greengrocer's apostrophe

Whenever there is a discussion on the role of the apostrophe, in Britain one group of people who always come under fire are shopkeepers, particularly greengrocers. Walk down any main street in England and you will see advertised '' banana's'', ''carrot's'', ''apple's'' and ''pear's'' when there is absolutely no need for an apostrophe. It is not just greengrocers. In pubs it's quite common to see ''chip's'', ''pie's'' and even ''beer's''.

However, some would argue it is important to keep it that way and that the wobbly spelling is all part of the ''charm'' of the high street. Greengrocers have traditionally misused the apostrophe to the extent that it is almost regarded as an art form. Customers might even get upset to find apostrophes in the right place.

The reality is that as long as the product tastes OK, nobody could care less where greengrocers stick their apostrophes.

Split personality

''PostScript'' admittedly is on very thin ice when discussing the English language and no doubt this week's column is true to form and generously decorated with grammatical errors, including apostrophes in the wrong place.

Some years ago, a reader quite rightly lashed me for regularly splitting infinitives without displaying any signs of remorse. And I would be the first to confess that on occasions I have been known to leave my prepositions dangling.

But the English language is so complex, the occasional splitting of an infinitive is not exactly a hanging offence.

We can always take heart from the words of the late US crime writer Raymond Chandler. Unhappy with the editing of one of his books, he wrote a scathing response to the publisher: ''When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it, so it stays split.''

Nicely put, Raymond.

Rock bottom

One vehement opponent of the apostrophe was Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who likened the tadpole-shaped punctuation mark to ''uncouth bacilli''.

The debate even entered the world of rock music.

Commenting on the lack of an apostrophe in their fourth album entitled, Lifes Rich Pageant, REM guitarist Peter Buck said: ''We all hate apostrophes. There has never been a good rock album that's had an apostrophe.''

Fans of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band might disagree.

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About the author

Writer: Roger Crutchley
Position: Writer