Punctuation may not be cool, but it matters
Western People 8.2.2022
Punctuation can be a bore but it matters – as Taoiseach Michael Martin and the Labour leader, Alan Kelly, discovered recently. Both reported a short exchange between them – in reference as to whether teachers were exempt from the restrictions about staying at home for five days if someone in their household had COVID. Kelly thought the Taoiseach said: ‘No, teachers are exempt’ but what he may have heard was, ‘No teachers are exempt’. It was a case of hearing or not hearing a misplaced comma. The comma mattered.
I’ve been here before. But I feel compelled to return to an epidemic that has become almost a pandemic, and apparently there’s no vaccine for it yet. I mean apostrophes and where they should be.
Text messaging has to take some of the blame. It has taken over the world and has given the young (particularly, but not exclusively) the excuse to play havoc with the English language. For example, CU B4 10 nxt Thu wk (See you before ten o’clock next Thursday week).
E-mailing is another reason. it’s now so commonplace that speed demands inevitable abbreviations. Yet another is that, in school, grammar was unrelentingly boring and we all conspired to avoid it, if at all possible. The word ‘syntax’, for example, sent shivers down everyone’s spine. A bit like the Modh Coinníollach in Irish. Better not go there.
The result is that our limited facility with the English language is such, and with grammar in particular, that very few people nowadays, even those with a third-level education, seem capable of putting a grammatically correct sentence together.
Spelling isn’t important anymore. Again, texting has a lot to answer for. Punctuation isn’t cool. So commas and colons and apostrophes are dropped into a sentence as if it’s a matter of whatever you’re having yourself. It almost seems as if no one anymore would even understand, let alone sympathise with, the dying words of a famous 20th-century writer – ‘I should have used fewer semi-colons’.
The point is that grammar and punctuation are like traffic lights. They organise words; they clarify sentences; they help communicate meaning. They’re not a hidden code known only to a literary elite and used to keep the less-gifted in their place. They actually matter. No one, for example, would question the apparently complex notation a musician employs and yet grammar never achieved the same general respectability.
But apostrophes? We take them for granted; we don’t respect them; we don’t understand them; and we don’t give them their due.
I’m aware that my focus on apostrophes might seem an unhealthy obsession. Because punctuation doesn’t seem to matter all that much anymore, those who insist on it can be dismissed as sticklers or bores or worse – pedants who have nothing more significant to worry about than dangling participles or redundant apostrophes. But, for some of us sensitive souls, it does matter. Maybe not a matter of life or death, but it does matter.
You’re one of us if you’ve walked into a shop and find yourself mesmerised by a sign advertising Orange’s. Or a music shop that advertises CD’s. Or a library sign that directs you to Crime Book’s. Or when you feel offended at yet another example of apostrophes scattered all over the written page the way raisins are mixed higgledy-piggledy in a baker’s everyday mix. It might not matter where a raisin eventually rests in the scone, but full stops and commas and apostrophes are not raisins and where they find themselves in a sentence matters a great deal.
Take the following two sentences: A woman, without her man, is nothing and A woman: without her, man is nothing. A misplaced comma changes the meaning entirely. I culled that particular example from Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, the zero tolerance guide to punctuation. The title of her book is a description of a Panda, who eats shoots and leaves for his or her breakfast. But if a wandering comma finds its way between Eats and Shoots (as in the title of the book) it changes the meaning entirely. That one comma suggests that pandas, far from being cuddly bears are in fact vicious assassins who walk into a cafe, eat a sandwich, shoot the other customers and then leave in a hurry. In other words, the comma matters, and not just to Pandas.
But even though you might get away with a rambling comma, the same can’t be said about apostrophes. There’s an epidemic of lost apostrophes, searching for their true home. Johns Barbers Shop, Marys Fashion’s, Michael,s Petshop’.
You suspect, of course, that I exaggerate. I don’t. Look around you and you’ll see that they’re everywhere, apostrophes trying to find a way home.
The situation is so bad that a group in England set up the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) in 2001 in response to the widespread incorrect use of the apostrophe. On their website are numerous examples taken from real life: Resident’s and Visitor’s only, Tree’s for sale, No dog’s, Open on Sunday’s, Taxi’s only, Toilettes are for customer’s only and even Ladie’s.
The good news is that the APS actually exists; the bad news is that they don’t seem to have a military wing. Because once you begin to notice apostrophes in the wrong place, you’ll be seeing them in your sleep. And occasionally, or maybe not just occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a shop somewhere surreptitiously taking out a black marker and changing that Orange’s sign to Oranges.
It’s bad enough when apostrophes are put in where they’re not needed, even more annoying is when a word is calling out for an apostrophe for dear life and no one seems to care.
- My last book, Ocras The Great Famine in Killala Diocese, has been reprinted in paperback and is now available again in all the local bookshops and usual outlets. Also available on online from www.mayobooks.ie.