Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


December 19, 2019

Some people love golf, others enjoy knitting, but I like semi colons. Everyone needs a hobby; mine is the correct placement of punctuation to ensure maximum readability in every sentence.

You’re probably thinking I’m one of those people on the internet who ignore your carefully worded message because you used “there” instead of “their”. As I feel quite sure it’s a bad way to share an appreciation of grammar, I promise I have never done this.

I don’t even think everyone should need to know all the rules – we’ve got people for that, and I’m one of them. Nobody is perfect (as the zingers that snuck onto these pages over the years have proven), but it’s important to do one’s best.

We also have people who make it their mission to protect punctuation at all costs, but I’m sorry to say we lost one of them this week. John Richards, an ex-journalist from Britain, has announced he will be ending his 18-year battle against bad grammar as the head of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

He’s 96 years old, so I think we should take a moment’s pause to consider how dedicated this man has been to the cause. That’s a long time to rail against the dying of the light, but he’s finally given up.

“We have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times has won,” he groused in the announcement.

Richards has waged war against signs for “ladies fashions” and stores that are “open Sunday’s” and says for a long time he would receive 40 letters and emails a week from people all over the world concerning the crimes against grammar they had witnessed. For some reason, this has declined over the last couple of years and now his inbox is almost empty.

I would be depressed by this apparent disregard for punctuation if it weren’t for the outsized reaction to his announcement. So many people rushed to the Apostrophe Protection Society website that the server saw a 600-fold increase in demand and promptly exploded.

He’s decided to keep it up for “reference and interest”, which is a relief.

Fortunately, he’s not the only guardian of good grammar. My favorite is the Grammar Vigilante, an unidentified man from Bristol in the southwest of England.

The Grammar Vigilante has spent the last 15 years sneaking around the city at night with his “apostrophiser”, which is essentially a sticker pad on the end of a pole.

Using his secret weapon, the vigilante corrects signs around the city, removing the apostrophes in “Amys Nail’s” and “Cambridge Motor’s” while pointing out that his actions are less of a crime than getting the punctuation wrong in the first place. His first effort was in 2003, when he became so incensed by a council sign that had apostrophes in “Monday’s to Friday’s” that he found himself scratching them off.

This love of grammar guardians is not a new thing for me. I recall reading the introduction to a book about grammar in my twenties – I believe it was called “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” – in which the author spoke of her horror at seeing the title of the movie, “Two Weeks Notice”.

The offense in this case is, of course, the lack of an apostrophe to indicate that the notice belongs to the two weeks. The author recalled missing two buses while “communing at length with [her] inner stickler, unable to move or, indeed, regain any sense of perspective”.

Lynne Truss, who instantly became my new heroine, took it upon herself to attend the glitzy UK premiere of that movie in London’s Leicester Square. As stars paraded red carpets in dresses that cost more than my car, cameras flashed and crowds begged for autographs, Truss marched up and down outside the cinema clutching a giant apostrophe on a stick.

When I read this book, I had already been working in the publishing industry for a few years. The bottom rung of the career ladder is, of course, the humble proofreader – though these days I will argue until I am blue in the face that there is no role more important.

I liked freshly proofed copy as much as the next person, but it hadn’t yet become a passion. It mostly reminded me of the teacher who would rap me on the knuckles with a ruler if a comma was badly placed, because I attended the one elementary school in Britain where it was still permissible to literally hammer knowledge into a child’s head.

But when I see how far others are willing to go to protect the pillars of our language, it renews my determination that no semi colon shall go astray on my watch. I’m unlikely to venture the streets of Sundance with a paintbrush in the middle of the night (my pajamas are definitely not warm enough), but I can at least give my own words a once-over.

After all, the Apostrophe Protection Society may have shuttered, but who knows what vigilantes are out there, ready to pounce when they catch a typo. Grammar pedantry may be a niche hobby, but it’s sure not one that leaves room for mistakes.


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