Sorry to get all Lynne Truss on you for a moment but I passed a sign today that had misused (or rather omitted) an apostrophe and something in me snapped. I’m not talking about a hand written sign put up by someone whose job is selling fruit and veg., I’m talking about a sign that was professionally produced and printed without anyone – the customer, the person who created the sign, the punctuation police – pointing out that it was completely illiterate. It’s not the only one. There’s a cafe round the corner that spells out in neon – and it was obviously tricky to get the apostrophe in there as it had to have its own individual bulb – that it sells “snack’s” (and yes I had to type that about three times before I could override my own subconscious and put the damn thing in). But that’s not the one that really bugs me. The one that really bugs me is the one in the underpass on the way to Vauxhall, the one I pass twice a day and the one that gets me every time. It’s annoying enough as it is that they’ve chosen to create a naff yet sadly unvandalisable mural celebrating the history of Vauxhall – or at least the history of Vauxhall as it was before they knocked it all down to put in an underpass – without it committing such illiteracies as:
“They say when you’re born in Lambeth / They give you a silver shovel / to keep the river wide. / Its friendly rivalry”
What on earth is that supposed to mean? It only makes what little sense it does if the apostrophe is included in “it’s” and even then it’s pushing it.
The thing is, the rules for using apostrophes are not difficult. It’s not like the comma. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will be aware that I use the standard comma placement rule (stick one in if the sentence starts looking a bit long – if you’ve already used too many commas try a semi-colon, or, if you’re feeling really daring, try a colon. When in doubt you can’t go wrong with dashes…). Using commas correctly involves properly understanding grammar, things like ‘defining clauses’ and the like, and I don’t – I was part of the generation that didn’t get beyond the verb, the noun and the adjective at school. But even I know about apostrophes. The rules just aren’t very complicated at all. A child could undersatand them. A properly educated greengrocer could understand them. But, it seems, the person in charge of naff mural design in Lambeth simply can’t, or can’t be bothered – which is worse.
OK, so it’s not really a catastrophe if an apostrophe is misplaced here or there, even in printed material. But English is ambiguous enough without removing one of the little clues that helps us disentangle our written sentences. And if the people who are supposed to be in charge can’t get them right, then who will?
I leave you with this (probably apocryphal) sign that makes my point:
Residents refuse to be left here
… And there will now be a slight pause while I hurriedly check back through the archives of my blog for stray, missing or redundant apostrophes …