a mark used to indicate the omission of one or more letters
“Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’S, DVD’s, and BOOK’S.”
If this satanic sprinkling of redundant
apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.
someone who insists on something
By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a
stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further.
mental responsiveness and awareness
True, one occasionally hears a marvellous punctuation-fan joke about a panda who “eats, shoots and leaves”, but in general the stickler’s exquisite
sensibilities are assaulted from all sides, causing feelings of panic and isolation.
a sign posted in a public place
Meanwhile a newspaper
placard announces “FAN’S FURY AT STADIUM INQUIRY”, which sounds quite interesting until you look inside the paper and discover that the story concerns a quite large mob of fans, actually - not just the lone hopping-mad fan so promisingly indicated by the punctuation.
be undecided or uncertain
A sign has gone up in a local charity-shop window which says, baldly, “Can you spare any old records” (no question mark) and I
dither daily outside on the pavement. Should I go in and mention it? It does matter that there’s no question mark on a direct question.
a person who has compulsive preoccupations
In short, we are unattractive know-all
obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.
a linguist who specializes in the study of syntax
grammarians use the analogy of stitching: punctuation as the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape.
rules governing socially acceptable behavior
It is no accident that the word “punctilious” (“attentive to formality or
etiquette”) comes from the same original root word as punctuation.
unclearness by virtue of having more than one meaning
But unfortunately, when the settlers sent their telegraphic invitation to Jameson, it included a tragic
ambiguity: It is under these circumstances that we feel constrained to call upon you to come to our aid should a disturbance arise here the circumstances are so extreme that we cannot but believe that you and the men under you will not fail to come to the rescue of people who are so situated.
admitting of no doubt or misunderstanding
As Eric Partridge points out in his Usage and Abusage, if you place a full stop after the word “aid” in this passage, the message is
a figure of speech that suggests a non-literal similarity
All of which substantiates Partridge’s own
metaphor for punctuation, which is that it’s “the line along which the train (composition, style, writing) must travel if it isn’t to run away with its driver”.
someone who educates young people
The obvious culprit is the recent history of education practice. We can blame the
having or showing profound knowledge
While other girls were out with boyfriends on Sunday afternoons, getting their necks disfigured by love bites, I was at home with the wireless listening to an Ian Messiter quiz called Many a Slip, in which
erudite and amusing contestants spotted grammatical errors in pieces of prose.
the trait of lacking enthusiasm for or interest in things
But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical
apathy could not have been worse.
People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the
edification of others.
a punctuation mark used to enclose textual material
For Cutting a Dash, we asked people in the street (outside the Palladium Theatre, as it happens, at about 5pm) if they used proper punctuation when sending text messages, and were surprised - not to say incredulous - when nine out of ten people said yes. Some of them said they used semicolons and
parentheses and everything.
not to be placated or appeased or moved by entreaty
This is bad news, obviously, for chaps like e.e. cummings, but good news for those who have spotted the
inexorable advance of lower case into book titles, television captions, company names and (of course) everything on the non-case-sensitive internet, and lie awake at night worrying about the confusion this is spreading in young minds.
impossible to attack
Meanwhile, the full stop is surely the simplest mark to understand - so long as everyone continues to have some idea what a sentence is, which is a condition that can’t be guaranteed. As the original “point” (so called by Chaucer), it appears to occupy a place in our grammar that is
express one's view openly and without fear or hesitation
opine that if (say) the apostrophe is turning up in words such as “Books”, then that’s a sure sign nobody knows how to use it any more; that it has outlasted its usefulness; it is like Tinkerbell with her little light fading, sustained only by elicited applause; it will ultimately fade, extinguish and die.
the lack of knowledge or education
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, severely prescriptive grammarians would argue that, since they were taught at school in 1943 that you must never start a sentence with “And” or “But”, the modern world is benighted by
ignorance and folly, and most of modern literature should be burned.
firm and dependable especially in loyalty
Somewhere between these positions is where I want us to end up:
staunch because we understand the advantages of being
staunch; flexible because we understand the rational and historical necessity to be flexible. In Mind the Stop Carey defines punctuation as being governed “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste”.
the doctrine that practical consequences determine value
There is a rumour that in parts of the Civil Service workers have been pragmatically instructed to omit apostrophes because no one knows how to use them any more - and this is the kind of
pragmatism, I say along with Winston Churchill, “up with which we shall not put”.
willingness to respect the beliefs or practices of others
At least if you adopt a zero
tolerance approach, when you next see a banner advertising “CD’s, DVD’s, Video’s, and Book’s”, you won’t just stay indoors getting depressed about it.
a person who takes the law into his own hands
And while I am very much in favour of forming an army of well-informed punctuation
vigilantes, I can foresee problems getting everyone to pull in the same direction.
hate coupled with disgust
There will be those, for example, who insist that the Oxford comma is an
abomination (the second comma in “ham, eggs, and chips”), whereas others are unmoved by the Oxford comma but incensed by the trend towards under-hyphenation - which the Oxford comma people have quite possibly never even noticed.
marked by a narrow focus on or display of learning
Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: “Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or
marked by great carelessness
Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King’s English (1997), the world of grammar is divided into “berks and wankers” - berks being those who are outrageously
slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise.
read for errors
At The Listener, where I was literary editor from 1986 to 1990, I discovered that any efforts I made to streamline the prose on my pages would always be challenged by one particular sub-editor, who would
proofread my book reviews and archly insert literally dozens of little commas - each one of which I felt as a dart in my flesh.
something that is needed or obligatory in advance
A degree in English language is not a
prerequisite for caring about where a bracket is preferred to a dash, or a comma needs to be replaced by a semicolon.
a person unable to read
The second shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says “
Illiterates’ Entrance”. And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, “
Illiterate’s Entrance”, so I changed it.
As we shall see, the
tractable apostrophe has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough; its talent for adaptability has been cruelly taken for granted; and now, in an age of supreme graphic frivolity, we pay the price.
When the possessor is plural, but does not end in an “s”, the apostrophe similarly
precedes the “s”: The children’s playground
But when the possessor is a regular plural, the apostrophe follows the “s”: The boys’ hats (more than one boy)
serving to express or indicate the act of having
The confusion of the
possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.
a socially awkward or tactless act
If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest
solecism in the world of punctuation.
an incorrect assumption
It features in Irish names such as O’Neill and O'Casey: Again the theory that this is a simple contraction - this time of “of” (as in John o’ Gaunt) - is pure woolly
In fact one might dare to say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon, and
succumbing to burn-out from all the thankless effort.
marked by precise accordance with details
British readers of The New Yorker who assume that this august publication is in constant ignorant error when it allows “1980’s” evidently have no experience of how that famously
punctilious periodical operates editorially.
a passage or expression that is cited
The present Apostropher Royal, Sir D’Anville O’M’Darlin’, concerns himself these days with such urgent issues as the tendency of “trendy publishers” to replace
quotation marks with colons and dashes, the effect of which is that pairs of unwanted inverted commas can be illegally shipped abroad, split down the middle to form low-grade apostrophes and sold back to an unwary British public.
an instance that does not conform to a rule
All this is about to change, however, because there are areas of apostrophe use that are not so simple, and we must now follow the apostrophe as it flits innocently into murky tunnels of style, usage and (oh no!) acceptable
exposing human folly to ridicule
satirical magazine Private Eye once printed one of the letters from Biro’s representatives, incidentally, under the memorable heading, “What a pathetic way to make a living”.
any opinions at variance with the official position
heresy since the 13th century, this law states that a balance exists in nature: “For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.”
Moreover, what many people don’t know, as they
fulminate against ignorant greengrocers, is that until the 19th century this was one of the legitimate uses of the apostrophe: to separate a plural “s” from a foreign word ending in a vowel, and thus prevent confusion about pronunciation.
a deceptive maneuver, especially to avoid capture
Evidently there used to be a shopkeeper in Bristol who deliberately stuck ungrammatical signs in his window as a
ruse to draw people into the shop; they would come in to complain, and he would then talk them into buying something.
a humorous play on words
Those spineless types who talk about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the
pun is very much intended.
doing away with a system or practice or institution
The next day after the
abolition of the apostrophe, imagine the scene. Triumphant abolitionist sits down to write, “Goodbye to the Apostrophe: we’re not missing you a bit!” and finds that he can’t. Abolish the apostrophe and it will be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it.