Guerrilla Movements in Grammar

Outrage changes an apostrophe edict, and a group of Londoners are copy-editing the streets. 

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People are doing crazy things with grammar!

Did you hear about the "capostrophe" in Britain last week? (Sorry, my portmanteau.) A district council said they were going to "abolish the apostrophe" from signs designating places in the area. As Geoffrey Pullum writes in Lingua Franca, "The signs for Beck’s Square, Blundell’s Avenue, and St. George’s Well would under the new policy say Becks Square, Blundells Avenue, and St Georges Well. Indeed, the council has been using apostrophe-free signs for years, like other districts (the pictured sign for Baker’s View is in neighboring Teignbridge district). The proposal was simply to make the tacit policy official."

People, however, did not like this, not at all, not one teeny bit. One of them, Steve Jenner, a spokesperson for the Plain English Society, demanded in full-outrage mode, “Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?” Pullum writes. Jenner's enthusiastic horror picked up enough rolling outrage from others that the district council changed their minds. The apostrophe would stay. The hilarious twist is that, as Pullum points out, for a guy pretty seemingly concerned about the rules, Jenner (and his ilk) failed to notice that "The apostrophe is not a punctuation mark. It doesn’t punctuate." He explains further, "Punctuation marks are placed between units (sentences, clauses, phrases, words, morphemes) to signal structure, boundaries, or pauses. The apostrophe appears within words. It’s a 27th letter of the alphabet. This issue concerns spelling." Tell that to your companions 'round the old group dinner table tonight.

I'm not going to focus on what the apostrophe is or is not (because Pullum does that on its own and better than I could!) but instead go back to the idea of the grammar outrage machine. On Grammar Day I spoke to several linguists and word appreciators who pointed out that "peevishness" about the rules is often a bit irksome to them, though it's what a lot of us laypeople and hobbyists consider the essence of grammar. We like to point out mistakes and mock people for creating them, and in the linguistic world, well, maybe they do that too, on their own time, but the focus is more about watching language evolve, studying and understanding grammar and the way we use words, and more broadly enjoying that it exists.

As for the rest of us, maybe we can't help it. When we see mistakes, we like to fix them.

This brings me to something that might be considered the opposite side of the Britain Apostrophe Catastrophe, same coin: the graffiti vigilantes that Joe Berkowitz writes at Fast Co.Create. They're The Tutor Crowd, a tutoring service in London that's extracurricularly running around town correcting typos they find in the graffiti they see, as a kind of grassroots marketing campaign (they slap a sticker on their handiwork and move on, and, hopefully, the calls for their service come pouring in). "No misspellings or grammatical errors, no matter how profane, are safe from The Tutor Crowd--the scourge of improper spellers everywhere," writes Berkowitz. And they do it nicely, apparently, no snarking, just helpful. Well, that's pretty awesome (check out more of their work here). One imagines that if the apostrophe edict had not been revoked, these cheery folks would take to the streets under cover of night with a Sharpie to make things right again, our modern-day grammar heroes. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.