What do you think of apostrophes? Earlier this year, a local council in the UK decided that all street signs should in future be rendered without apostrophes, even if they would be grammatically correct. The official reason for this was that it would avoid “confusion”. But possibly it was to prevent the misuse of apostrophes, which for proofreaders like me is often worse than leaving them out! I was in my local gym a few years ago and noticed an advertisement on the wall from a local supplier of “Conservatory’s”. Luckily I had a pen in my pocket and helpfully crossed out the offensive ending of this word and replaced it with the correct plural “-ies”. You’ll probably say, “Oh, get a life!”, and you would be right that there are more important things to worry about. Nevertheless, punctuation can be very important and it is very likely that incorrect punctuation will cause confusion.
The author and journalist Lynne Truss scored an unexpected hit a few years ago with her book entitled using the old joke about a panda in a bar: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. The one comma after the word “Eats” makes all the difference to the meaning of the phrase, turning the nouns “Shoots” and “Leaves” into verbs and making the panda into a vicious gangster-type figure rather than a gentle animal that sits all day eating the shoots and leaves of bamboo. Lynne Truss’s book was an attempt to defend the correct use of punctuation and show how necessary it is for clarity. Another notorious example of an unfortunate misconception caused by missing out a comma is in the phrase: “Let’s eat Grandma”. If you speak the words, the comma is understood by a pause after “eat” – you’re talking to Grandma, and saying “Let’s eat”. If Grandma were used to texting and saw “Let’s eat Grandma” come through on her phone, she might be rather worried.
Getting back to the apostrophe, it may be that the council is trying to avoid mistakes like those in the American sign shown above and it’s true that removing apostrophes from street signs is hardly going to cause major misunderstanding. It’s probably best for proofreaders just to relax a little and accept that this doesn’t signal a general, catastrophic breakdown in the use of English. Let’s hope so, anyway!