Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bad punctuation: The slippery slope to bedlam

There’s a disturbing trend that I see now and then, and to be honest it’s making me nervous. Apparently there is a movement dedicated to eradicating certain punctuation marks forever.

The first time I heard this was when I read an article from The Telegraph. Yes, the newspaper in England. You know … the very country that is supposed to be the final word on all good grammar and etiquette, like which monstrosity of a hat to wear to a royal wedding.

The article’s title was “Apostrophes abolished by council.” Apparently, the Birmingham City Council decided to ban apostrophes because the staff members spent too much time dealing with complaints about grammar.

Blimey, Brits! What fore art thou thinking?

So let me get this straight … Because some folks have complained that your signs throughout town are grammatically incorrect, you’ve decided to get rid of the apostrophe across the board? You didn’t know if it should be St. Paul’s Square or St. Pauls’ Square, so now it’s just St Pauls Square?

As someone who is paid to make sure that apostrophes are placed correctly in everything I produce for my employer, I’m astonished that you have overlooked the job security aspect here. As long as there are people who don’t understand grammar and punctuation (I’m looking at you Birmingham City Council) I have a job. Brilliant!

But wait! John Richards, the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society (I’m totally serious here, and yes, I’m looking into a membership), chimed in: “This is setting a terrible example. It seems retrograde, dumbing down really. All over Birmingham, and in other cities, teachers are trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation. Now children will go around Birmingham and see utter chaos.”

Preach it John!

Seriously, if we get rid of the apostrophe, what’s next? Who needs speed limits? It’s too hard to manage it, so let’s let everyone drive whatever speed they like. Heck, let’s throw away the legal driving age altogether…it’s just too much of a bother, what with all that pesky math needed to figure out how old you are.

Yes, I think bedlam is an accurate assessment of where this primrose path will lead.
But before I blame this entirely on the Brits, I have to point out a glaring example right here in our backyard. The other day I drove past a sign hanging from the side of our local Sears store. It read:

we beat
all competitors
tire prices

Okay, first let me point out the obvious total disregard for capitalization. But I can overlook that. Maybe this employee was a huge fan of e.e. cummings and was making this banner in homage to the great poet known for his disregard for capitalization and punctuation.

And I’m not even bothered that the sentence has no end punctuation. Okay, so I’m not OVERLY bothered.

But the total lack of apostrophe after the “s” in “competitors” made me want to scream loudly enough for them to hear me in Birmingham, England.

Without the apostrophe what do we have? Bedlam.

If it’s incorrectly positioned before the “s” as in “We beat our competitor’s tire prices” that would mean they only have one competitor.

But since they have multiple competitors the apostrophe goes after the “s” as in “We beat our competitors’ tire prices.”

Now without an apostrophe at all, it looks like they’re a bunch of thugs who literally attack their competitors, as my friend Kasia so astutely pointed out.
Bottom line: The whole sign is a mess. And the meaning is, at best, confusing.
Are there worse problems in the world? Yes.

Are there bigger fish to fry? Absolutely.

But we each have our battles to fight, and for whatever reason, I’ve chosen to take on bad grammar and punctuation.

So I say to you, Birmingham City Council and your ilk, bring it on. You may try to terrorize us with your total disregard for grammar and punctuation, but as long as I have breath and a big red marker you’ll not prevail. (Please note the apostrophe in “you’ll.” See how it’s done?)

eileen burmeister lives, works and carries a big, red marker in roseburg. she can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com. (See? Bedlam.)

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