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The grammar vigilante

April 14, 2017

I’m late to the party on this one, but I thought I should comment on the ‘grammar vigilante’ of Bristol who was in the news last week. He goes around correcting signage which has misplaced apostrophes on it. I have a lot of sympathy with him because I used to do exactly the same thing; whenever I saw a sign outside a shop that had an aberrant apostrophe I would neatly circle it with a board marker (as a teacher I always had board markers in my bag). This was back in the 80s when I lived in Kentish Town. I never got on the news for doing it, though.

Strictly speaking I suppose the grammar vigilante is really a punctuation vigilante; but then, you need to know quite a bit of grammar to know the rules for apostrophes. I can see how the confusion arises. People who misuse apostrophes have in their minds a rough sort of rule, which is that when a word ends in an s which is not always there, then an apostrophe is required to signal its addition. I remember when I was at school in the 70s, a boy once wrote Sex Pistol’s on the cover of his history exercise book, and when challenged by the rest of us over his illiteracy, defended himself by saying “There’s got to be an apostrophe there, ‘cause you could have just one Sex Pistol, right?” How we laughed.

The point is that the rule is not totally wrong; it’s just incomplete. The fact is that there are three reasons for adding an s to a word in English: when the s is added to form a plural; when the s is added for the third person singular of a verb; and when the s is added to signal possession. The rule that you put in an apostrophe when an s is added is thus correct for the last of these, but not for the first two.

To add to the confusion, an apostrophe is also used to indicate missing letters in contractions, and the most common of these do just so happen to end in s: what’s, that’s, it’s, he’s, she’s (in all these cases the apostrophe-s can indicate either is or has); and then there’s also let’s (for let us).

To make it even worse, once you’ve learned the rules you have to learn the exception for possessive personal pronouns. We might reasonably expect his, hers, ours, yours, theirs and its to have an apostrophe, since they indicate possession; but they don’t. And to make it more confusing still, the impersonal pronoun one does take an apostrophe in the possessive: one’s.

Faced with all this it must seem simpler just to stick an apostrophe in whenever you see an s. But I do wish they’d just decide to leave it out every time instead. They’d be right more often and it wouldn’t be so annoying when they were wrong.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Not punctuation but there is a chip shop in Forest Gate who for years had a sign outside advertising their Largh Kebabs which actually worked in the owner’s accent. They also sold saveloy’s but not chip’s.

  2. How do you feel about contractions in written English? At school I was taught contractions are only used for reporting spoken English.

  3. I was also taught at school not to use contractions in written English. However, I think fashions have changed and I frequently see contractions used in print in literary and academic writing these days; so I have taken to doing it myself.

    • Thanks for getting back to me. I am used to seeing it on blogs and in other informal writing on the internet, but it still looks wrong to me in a newspaper or academic context. Maybe I am just getting old.

      Thanks again and have a nice evening.

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