You’ll have heard about him, no doubt. The anonymous gentleman in Bristol who has been correcting grocers’* apostrophes throughout the city with neatly-cut strips of masking tape. There has been a drearily predictable upsurge of approval for this man and his actions. “At last!” people everywhere are crying, “Someone is taking a stand against the disgraceful lowering of our standards. It’s about time all this dreadful dumbing-down was brought to a halt.” There has been a nationwide soothing of existential anxiety, at least for a day or two. “Look at me! I understand the rules of punctuation! I must be a good person – or, at least, I’m definitely better than you. Phew!”
Well, I disagree. Not with the actions of the Bristol vandal (for vandalism it is). He has found a creative, amusing and non-hostile way of addressing an issue that clearly irritates him. He, at least, does not just mouth off about how dreadful it all is and then do precisely nothing.
No, my argument is with the rules of punctuation themselves. It seems to me that the rules pertaining to the possessive apostrophe, specifically, are not fit for purpose. I am no anarchist, believe me. I can see that a workable set of rules is a useful thing. It would be time-consuming, tedious and chaotic if everyone had to make every decision for themselves about everything, rather than following a sensible and agreed-upon set of guidelines. But the guidelines do have to work. Otherwise, we serve the rules, rather than the rules serving us.
In the case of the possessive apostrophe (and certainly in the case of the temporal apostrophe – hadn’t thought about that one, had you?), I would argue that the rules no longer serve. In theory, I agree, it all seems simple enough. But when so many perfectly normal people of perfectly normal intelligence who have a perfectly decent education get them wrong so often, the evidence suggests that these rules are too cumbersome for easy and automatic everyday use. Does punctuation really have to be difficult to use? That rather defeats the point of it.
Should the rules serve the people – or should the people serve the rules? Surely it’s the former? Or – and I have a horrible, swelling, nagging feeling that this is correct – do we just like being told what to do? Do we like it enough that we never stop to consider whether the orders given are reasonable and right?
Before you all start on me, of course I am not suggesting that we simply abandon every little rule that doesn’t suit everyone. That’s a reductio ad absurdem and yes, would lead all the way down to anarchy. Rules aside, there are also such things as right and wrong, tricky though they can be to pin down. But this is the apostrophe we’re talking about. Not the moral backbone of western civilisation.
The apostrophe is no more fit for modern use than the quill or the slate. And nobody seriously misses those, do they?
(*I really had to think about that one.)