Gettin’ possessive: Let’s hear it for International Apostrophe Day!
I was excited to have been interviewed by The Washington Post yesterday, and then delighted to have this article by John Kelly published today to mark International Apostrophe Day!
It’s always a good day to celebrate the apostrophe, but Aug. 15 may be the best day: ’Tis International Apostrophe Day, the annual commemoration of a crooked little line that punches above its weight.
Not “it’s” weight, obviously, though that’s just one example of the many ways the apostrophe is misused.
Bob McCalden has seen ’em all. He’s chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, which he oversees from his home in the south of England.
“It’s not an important date for people’s calendars, but it’s a way to help remind people that [the apostrophe is] more than just an annoying scribble on a page of text,” Bob told me over Zoom.
And text is what we’re talking about. There’re no apostrophes in spoken English. But written English depends on ’em. Here’s an example that John Richards, the society’s late founder, was fond of, something you might see on a sign outside an apartment building: “Residents’ refuse to be placed in trash cans.”
Take away the apostrophe and you’re left with a very different meaning.
Tuesday will be International Apostrophe Day’s 12th observance since its creation by David Marsh, a copy editor at the Guardian newspaper. And it’s the second since Bob took over the society after the founder’s death in 2021, when Richards was 97.
Bob, 66, isn’t a professional wordsmith. He worked in IT at a large international accountin’ firm. He’s retired now, but for the last 10 years of his career he worked with people for whom English wasn’t their first language. The experience underscored for him the apostrophe’s importance in clear communication.
Some people might blame the collapse of the apostrophe on the smartphone’s rise. Bob’s not one of them. Someone’s text is like a comment in the pub: There’s no need to call the grammar police. (Though Bob’s grown children are careful to double-check their texts to him, he said. “Probably because it’s me.”)
What’s dispiriting to Bob is when a big company gets it wrong on a product, a sign or in its marketing materials.
“That area is possibly getting worse and it shouldn’t be,” he said.
For example, the label on a bottle of sparkling water sold by upmarket food retailer Marks and Spencer thanked customers for “helping to make our beaches and sea’s a safer place to visit.”
If that “sea’s” makes you nauseated, the society might be right for you.
In England they call that the “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” the sort of thing you see in a grocery store where an overeager sign maker has sprayed apostrophes on every plural noun: banana’s, apple’s, pear’s …
When it comes to apostrophe misuse, Bob said, “The majority of issues that I see are where they’ve been erroneously included rather than omitted.”
Bob’s advice: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
Sometimes, though, it’s the opposite problem. Bob saw a painkiller bein’ sold as “childrens ibuprofen.”
“It’s just wrong,” he said. “That shouldn’t slip through.” It should be “children’s ibuprofen.”
Said Bob: “I’m in the process of getting that fixed.”
He’s had success in correcting such errors, including a headline on a Mirror newspaper website story that read “Marks and Spencer to close stores across UK — see if you’re local is on the list.”
Bob’s justifiably proud of the website he built: apostrophe.org.uk. It has a really good section on correct use, reader submissions of erroneous usage, a monthly newsletter, and a store where you can purchase society T-shirts, various grammar books and wines from Australia’s Apostrophe vineyards.
“I have bought a case of that, and it’s very good,” Bob said.
The society’s website notes: “Becoming a member of the Apostrophe Protection Society is easy and doesn’t cost you anything! It does mean that we can proactively send you periodic updates on what’s happening in the world of the apostrophe.” Membership’s currently at about 400.
And what opinions do Bob’s friends hold about his gentle obsession?
“They’re generally amused by it, but very supportive,” he said. “They may think I’m slightly obsessive about the apostrophe, but I think you can be slightly obsessive about something like that and gain people’s full support.”
Go get ’em, Bob! In honor of International Apostrophe Day, I’ve included an apostrophe in every single sentence of this column.