Ten years ago, Lynne Truss published her book “Eats, shoots & leaves.” The title was in reference to a joke that demonstrates the difference a little comma could make:
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
The apostrophic dilemma
The grammar freak I am, I found this book hilarious and it still has a prominent place on my bookshelf. One chapter in particular that stayed with me was on the apostrophe, the curly loner that tirelessly fulfils two important jobs: indicating possession and filling the gap for missing letters. Both roles are governed by relatively simple yet repeatedly misunderstood rules; signs such as “Thank God its Friday” or “Banana’s £1” have zapped the souls of many.
So how would Lynne Truss, who has seriously considered establishing a militant wing for the Apostrophe Protection Society, feel about the news that a council in South West England is considering banning apostrophes “to avoid confusion”? So “Baker’s Park” would be rewritten as “Bakers Park” – which immediately conjures up images of bakers, rather than Sir Samuel White Baker, the explorer after which the park was named.
A new newspeak?
I understand the dilemma. My secondary school was called St George’s School and there was constant confusion amongst pupils (and parents) on how the name should be written. But would the solution have been to simply disregard the tricky little mark? No, of course not. It’s the school’s mission to teach children right from wrong – surely something local councils should also be aiming to achieve?
Perhaps the council was worried about the effects that wrong apostrophe usage has on people. According to Lynne Truss, the emotional process of such encounter is immense: “First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.” All the more reason to get it right.