Do rogue apostrophes make your blood boil? Join the club.
The following article appeared in "Saga Exceptional" magazine on 7 September 2023.
Author - Hannah Verdier
Gilded pin of grammar or greengrocer’s nemesis? We reveal why one apostrophe activist is fighting to preserve the threatened and misunderstood punctuation mark.
Sending an email to the Apostrophe Protection Society is a nerve-wracking business, but, with the grammar-loving body whipping up a media storm recently, it has to be done. What if the wrong “it’s” slips in or a possessive pops up where it shouldn’t?
However, chatting to the very affable chairman Bob McCalden on the phone about his passion for that much-misused point makes all the keyboard quivering worthwhile.
Many a pedant mourned in 2019 when retired journalist John Richards disbanded the APS, declaring: “Ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.” At 96, he wanted to scale operations down, but now the APS has seen a resurgence in the hands of McCalden, who grabbed the grammar baton in February 2022.
Leading the apostrophe apostles
The 66-year-old chuckles at the thought of becoming grammar’s answer to George Clooney. “It’s all snowballing. I’ve been absolutely delighted by the amount of media coverage there’s been. I’ve been in the Times and the Washington Post and I was on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2,” McCalden tells Saga Exceptional.
Doubling the membership (from 800 to 1,600) in recent weeks has helped the APS gain gravitas. It’s free to join and loyal followers are encouraged to submit examples of rogue apostrophes they’ve spotted in the wild.
“It gives me the incentive to put time and effort into this and also credibility when I’m talking to big organisations about apostrophe usage,” he says. “People contact me to say they’re so glad there’s someone taking up the cause.”
Taking over from John Richards was a labour of love for McCalden, who used to spend two or three hours a week on the cause, but is now working daily to right those grammar wrongs.
He admits he’s lucky because he had a good grounding in grammar at school “back in the day when English language and literature were two separate subjects” and his keen eye for errors is something of a gut instinct. The APS website catalogues some pretty big crimes involving “pizza’s”, “kebab’s” and “dog’s”, as sent in by eagle-eyed members of the public.
“I’ve been pretty passionate about the English language for more decades than I can remember and the apostrophe has always been at the front of my mind. I gained a reputation over the years at being able to glance at a document and I would immediately find those misplaced apostrophes,” says McCalden.
"The barbarians have won”
One of the biggest beefs the APS embarked on was with Waterstones, the book shop that dropped its apostrophe in 2012, much to the disgust of the grammar-loving community.
“John, who started the APS in 2001, got terribly upset about Waterstones removing their apostrophe and I think he took that to his dying days. When he closed the APS in 2019 he said ‘the barbarians have won’ and he was still very much of the view that Waterstones shouldn’t have done what they did,” he says.
McCalden is more forgiving, arguing that a brand can do whatever it wants with its name, citing Harrods (which dropped the apostrophe around 1920) as an example. It’s clear he now has bigger fish to fry, such as keeping an eye on large organisations that commit apostro-crimes. A particular bugbear was M&S soda water, which boasts it’s “perfect on it’s own or as a mixer”. There’s just no need for that apostrophe.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says McCalden. “Those are the ones that annoy me the most because it’s been read by so many people and it’s slipped through. Wherever possible, I’ll take that up with the organisation concerned.”
And do they immediately amend their blunders? “No,” says McCalden. “They don’t. They’re not very good at responding to criticism like that.”
But he did have a victory when he saw a rogue possessive in a national newspaper. “The Daily Mirror had printed something that I happened to spot on their website and there was an apostrophe that shouldn’t have been there because it wasn’t a possessive. Sitting eating my breakfast, I wrote an email and pointed it out – and 10 minutes later I had an apology and they’d corrected it online,” he says.
Emojis and the evolution of the apostrophe
Although the fight goes on, McCalden is surprisingly forgiving about transient forms of communication such as social media and scribbles on chalkboards. Greengrocers have a reputation for knowing more about carrots and kale than apostrophes, but is that justified?
“A trader who’s grabbed a piece of chalk and a board and written ‘apple’s’ with a price next to it is still wrong, but I can just about forgive them,” says McCalden. “It’s the bigger brands or a restaurant that puts an apostrophe in ‘menu’s’ that are pretty much unforgivable.”
For someone who you’d expect to be a towering bastion of pedanthood, he’s also relaxed about apostro-pheric blunders on social media. “I liken social media to chatting to your friends in a bar. I probably don’t use proper grammar all the time because I don’t need to, and similarly on social media it’s short text, so it’s far more acceptable to miss out bits of punctuation. It’s immediate, it’s short-term and it’s descriptive, so I’m a lot less bothered,” he says.
He does, however, use proper grammar on text. “Both of my grown-up children go out of their way to text me in properly-formed sentences with the correct punctuation,” he says.
And don’t get him started on those controversial little winky faces. “I don’t like emojis,” he says. “One of the reasons why punctuation is so important is because it aids clarity. Emojis? They’re so undefined. Use the wrong smiley face and you really upset people. I try not to use them because they go against everything I stand for.”
It’s a can of worms, but fortunately the apostrophe is a much more straightforward beast – and McCalden has one golden rule for anyone who still can’t get to grips with it.
“If in doubt, leave it out,” he says. “I see far more cases where they’ve been added wrongly than missed out. The rules around apostrophes are not that difficult. It’s either a contraction such as ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’ or it’s a possessive. Dropping apostrophes in just because it looks good is the wrong way to do it.”
The grammar police have spoken (or should that be has?)
Bob McCalden gives his judgement on the more slippery characters of the writing world:
Semi-colon “Semi-colons are a tricky one and I think their use is greatly diminishing because so many people don’t understand where to put one." Exclamation mark “A lot of people grossly overuse them. I don’t think there’s ever a need for more than one at the end of a sentence, so when people use three or four, that’s not on at all!!! An exclamation mark at the end of each sentence is equally bad. But when used correctly, they help to provide more of an impact. ‘Stop!’ is far more exclamatory than just ‘stop’.” Oxford comma “Oh, the Oxford comma is a tricky one. In the US, they favour it when it’s not needed, whereas I think British English uses it more sparingly.” And the most controversial question of all: “Do’s and don’ts” “I wrote to the Times about that last month. It’s doubly tricky because the ‘don’t’ part already has an apostrophe, so adding one after the ‘do’ does help it to look balanced. Putting ‘dos’ without an apostrophe is more grammatically correct, but I go back to the principle that punctuation is to make things clearer. So that’s one of the very few exceptions where I think, on balance, it’s better with the apostrophe.”