BRISTOL’S ‘grammar vigilante’, a graffitist obsessed with correcting badly-punctuated shop signs by dead of night, is cheered and jeered in equal measure.
Rogue apostrophes drive the do-gooder not to tipple but to Tippex. A special tool, designed to reach the most vertiginous vexations enables a blob of paint to be applied at first floor level as easily as correcting fluid. But the grammar vigilante is no Banksy, Bristol’s other famous ‘fly-and-apply-by-night’, and expensive signs are not always enhanced by such daubs, even when correctly applied. Some of the city’s shopkeepers are a bit hacked off, it seems.
Not so on the pedants and the Facebook grammarians who delight in asserting their superior knowledge of all things punctuative by achieving ten-out-of-ten in grammarian quizzes: they are delighted.
I can almost hear the bray of approval for this one-person crusade to delete the grocers’ rogue apostrophes from signs and boards across the nation; here at last, they say, is someone who not only has our superior grasp of the English language but who is also taking direct action.
Let me confess: I was once a bit of a punctuation perv myself. I would break into self-righteous indignation at a ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’; have a snicker and snort at ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’. As a copywriter and proofreader, it was my job to be accurate. But it also fell to me to explain endlessly to those taught never to start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’ that, actually, you can.
Yep! Your primary/prep school teacher was wrong. From the Bible to Jane Austen and from William Blake to John Bunyan — indeed, pretty much every writer in between, before and beyond — has used sentences with coordinating conjunctions to spectacular effect.
The same goes for split infinitives: we all know the Star Trek example (“To boldly go” etcetera…), which in turn splits so-called purists from so-called Luddites like me. Fact is, the archaic rule comes from an irrational obsession with Latin grammar, which has single-word infinitives. Sticking to the split-infinitive rule obsessively can sound clumsy and completely change the emphasis of a sentence.
I’m not saying that we should not endeavour to be accurate; there are times, of course, when it is essential for both meaning and propriety. What I am saying is that sometimes even the best of us makes mistakes (come on, who hasn’t accidentally typed ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’ or ‘to’ instead of ‘too’ once in there — sorry, their — life?).
More than that, some of these ‘errors’ enrich life in strange and marvellous ways – maybe some of us even learned the apostrophe ‘rule’ because of the misplaced ones. At the end of the day, we all know what ‘potato’s’ are; ‘gentlemans outfitters’ may be incorrect, but we’re surely not going to stop by that shop for a bag of frozen peas, are we?
It was studying for a degree in English Language and Literature with the Open University that changed my mind. English is not one language anymore. That baby grew up and left home.
From pidgins and creoles to the Singlish and Manglish patois of Singapore and Malaysia, English has diversified into forms that many indigenous speakers might find difficult to understand.
One of my favourite signs at home in Berwick upon Tweed was for the ‘Golder Star’ takeaway. It’s been corrected now to ‘Golden Star’. For me the original had a joy and dynamism that celebrated the accents and dialects that enhance the way English is spoken and used in this country and beyond.
At the end of the day, it’s the whole pedantic police attitude to language that has made the southern accent ‘posh’ and the northern one un-posh. I wonder whether, in the po-faced pointing out of bad punctuation and grammar and pronunciation, we have forgotten to embrace and celebrate the ways in which users bend language to their own will.
Who’d have thought that text-speak would enhance our lives, enabling us to communicate in brief at speed; or that emojis would add meaning to the everyday?
The odd misplaced punctuation mark or mis-spelled word usually makes no difference to our understanding and ‘greengrocer English’ can bring some light relief to an otherwise dull high street.
I wouldn’t for one moment take away the grammar vigilante’s correcting stick (although I’m sure there are some who would!). But I would suggest that there’s more to life than getting apoplectic over an apostrophe.