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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Put the apostrophe in its place

Having lain dormant for many months now, my inner Grammar Goddess feels the need to rise up and spread her wings in celebratory and protective guardian-angel mode, this time to pay homage to a fighter for truth, justice and the proper usage of the oft-maligned and misused apostrophe.

Behold the hero: John Richards. A retired copy editor from Boston, Lincolnshire, England, in 2001 he created the Apostrophe Protection Society with the singular aim of preserving the correct usage of this much-abused punctuation mark. Richards announced earlier this month he is withdrawing from the public fight and closing his organization.

Believe it or not, the news was covered (albeit briefly) by such media outlets as CNN, the Washington Post and the Guardian.

His statement was, in addition to grammatically correct, brief and to the point. At age 96, he felt the need to cut back on his commitments and, admitting defeat, because “we, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.”

Another grammar warrior bites the dust.

Here is a man who put into action his grammatical beliefs. He began by creating a customizable form letter that could be sent to businesses that misused apostrophes in their signage, names or advertising. It read: “Dear Sir or Madam” and went on “Because there seems to be some doubt about the use of the apostrophe, we are taking the liberty of drawing your attention to an incorrect use.”

A few weeks after his quixotic crusade began, he succeeded in having his local library remove the apostrophe from its “CD’s” sign. He received some news media attention and began getting fan letters and support, often from others who were waging their own likely doomed-to-fail efforts to save from damnation a variety of grammatical sinners around the globe.

He tried – and failed – to have the famous Harrods Department Store install an apostrophe in its name. But in 2013 he prevailed when the Mid Devon District Council reversed an earlier decision to remove apostrophes from all its street signs.

Richards said of the original decision: “It sets a bad example for local children who were being taught about apostrophes in local schools.”

And, yes, he did understand that he was perceived as being odd. In a Sunday Express story in 2012 he was quoted as saying: “People do tend to look on me as a little bit pedantic, but I don’t mind – I think we need pedants.” He continued: “The apostrophe is a vital piece of punctuation and grammar. To do without it would be confusing, as well as inelegant.”

In his nearly 20 years as an apostrophe champion, he received some personal acclaim of sorts, once being featured as “Mr. October” in a calendar that paid homage to what it proclaimed were the most boring men in Britain.

One year he won a noted satiric award – the Ig Nobel Prize – for “his efforts to protect, promote and defend the differences between plural and possessive.”

So, as John Richards steps out of the public grammar arena, the Grammar Goddess wishes to acknowledge his contributions and once again explain the when and where of his beloved apostrophes (briefly).

Please note an apostrophe generally connotes possession, as in: Mary’s book and the dog’s collar. It is also present when shortening and combining two words, as in contractions: didn’t (did not) or I’ve (I have).

As with all things grammatical, there are areas of confusion, mostly with the use of apostrophes after words ending in the letter “s.” Is it James’ bicycle or James’s bicycle? I know which one I’d use, but the Grammar Gods have not entirely agreed on this.

Common misuses often occur with homonyms, and including one with an apostrophe: their, there, they’re. Just know that “they’re” is only used when it’s a substitute for “they are.”

And then there are plural nouns, which only get an apostrophe if they refer to ownership or possession. Right usage: I have two dogs. Wrong usage: I have two dog’s. Right usage: These are my dogs’ chew toys (if I have more than one dog) or my dog’s chew toys (if I just have one dog).

See why apostrophes need an explainer and defender.

The Grammar Goddess has just three more observations to share.

First, please look forward to Aug. 15, International Apostrophe Day, that one day of the year when apostrophe aficionados can celebrate that cute little dot with a tail that has garnered such attention among its faithful.

Second, an item was observed on Facebook recently that brought the apostrophe nearer and dearer to the heart: “Irony is when someone writes ‘Your an Idiot.’ Learn Grammar and Insult Properly.”

And finally, to those who lament the departure of John Richards from the grammar wars, do not lose heart. He told the BBC recently his campaigning days may not be over permanently. He is considering a return for a different cause. Said he: “The use of the comma is appalling. When I read some newspaper websites, they just don’t understand what it is used for.”

The Grammar Goddess can once again fold her wings and be comforted. The battlefield remains, and its warriors are still out there. Sometimes they just need a little rest.

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