Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The protector of the apostrophe

By Rick Blechta 

I didn’t know such a thing existed, but apparently there was once a thing as the Apostrophe Protection Society. Had I known, I would have signed on immediately!

The reason I now know of this August organization is that it’s founder, John Richards, died last week at the age of 97.

A long-time newspaper editor and copy editor in Britain, he founded his group in 2001 and was quite surprised when people began joining. Originally, the membership of the APS was only John and his son. Seems as if there were a lot of grammarians fed up with the way those poor little apostrophes are constantly being abused and he was amazed so many people from all over the English-speaking world wanted to join up.

Something really gets steam coming from my ears is their incorrect inclusion in dates — as in “the 1980’s” — or in advertising copy for housing developments — “prices in the low 600,000’s.” I once vowed to my wife that I would never agree to purchasing a home in one of these because if they can’t even get their apostrophe usage together, what other construction shortcomings would be happen. Yeah, I was being flip, but really, is ever writer of realtor copy that ignorant?

So John Richards, like many of us who care about language I imagine, fought the good fight, and for that I’m grateful. He only shuttered the APS when he turned 96 and was “cutting back.” Sadly his announcement of the closure included, “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

I’d like to think not, and I vow to carry on. I may even become militant enough to go around in the dead of night and “fix” signs wherever I see apostrophes being abused.

In closing, I’ll leave the final words to John, concerning the importance of apostrophes. The following is from his obituary in The Washington Post.

“Just take the sign outside a block of flats,” he once told Slate magazine. “Residents’ refuse to be placed in bins. Remove the apostrophe and you see a very different notice.”

In the end, he said he didn’t mind if people saw him as a scold.

“I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization,” Mr. Richards told The Washington Post. “I don’t like any attempt to diminish it.”


Sybil Johnson said...

I heard about this society after it he'd disbanded it. I admit I get annoyed by some incorrect apostrophe use myself. Its and it's in particular.

Anna said...

Not to mention your's and banana's (stop me before I fill up this entire space).

blogcutter said...

Interestingly enough, not even the "experts" all seem to agree that your numerical examples (e.g. "the 1980's") are incorrect. Anne Stilman in Grammatically Correct (published by Writer's Digest Books, 1997) says that plurals of a numeral or single letter should take an apostrophe if ambiguity would otherwise result (Did you get mostly B's or mostly BS on your last report card?) She goes on to state that with numbers and letters when ambiguity is NOT likely, some authorities say to use the apostrophe anyway while others say not to, although the trend nowadays is not to.
May I watch the steam come out of your ears now?

Rick Blechta said...

Sybil, I think its and it's is often a typo rather than an incorrect usage. I'm guilty of doing that at times, usually when I haven't bothered to proofread.

Rick Blechta said...


First, thanks for commenting!

I cannot disagree with what you're saying. Sometimes, apostrophes need to be used to clarify meaning, as in "the Oakland A's" and also your example of BS vs B's.

As I trained typographer -- if I can put that hat on for a moment -- with numbers, the use of an apostrophe is not necessary (if one is considering using it) because numbers in most fonts are upper case and so this further clarifies what's going on.

One thing I found out yesterday (after writing my post) is that apostrophes were used after numbers years ago. They were dropped in more recent times because, typographically speaking, they're ugly and really serve no use gramatically.

So I suspect that those who still recommend using apostrophes after numbers are adhering to the old rules.

No steam coming out of my ears! But please don't mention companies like Waterstone's deciding to drop the apostrophe from their name. That's just plain WRONG!