Word nerds will fight you about the apostrophe


I want a tattoo, but my wife has forbidden me to get one.

Not a big tattoo, mind you. Not like those LSD-driven fever dreams that people have plastered over their bodies.

I just want the Oxford comma on my right wrist. That’s the comma before the word “and” in a series, like “red, white, and blue.”

The comma is my favorite punctuation mark, partly because it can cause such a stir. If you want to see a bunch of word nerds fight, ask them whether they support the Oxford comma.

Journalists hate it, but book writers and academics are ride-or-die supporters of the OC.

So am I, much to my newspaper editors’ dismay. Team Oxford Comma all the way, bay-bee!

Which is why I want that comma, and not just any old comma, tattooed on my wrist. As a writer, I think it’s the one punctuation symbol that defines me as a writer. It means I can speak in long rambling sentences that go on seemingly forever. (Ask my kids.)

But I like it for another, even more important reason: Whenever I raise my hand, the comma would become an apostrophe.

To be clear, it is for this reason and this reason alone that I want a comma tattoo. But my wife does not appreciate my genius, and so has forbidden me from perpetrating what may be the best punctuation-related joke in history.

The apostrophe is also my second-favorite punctuation symbol, mostly because it’s a symbol we word nerds can rally around and judge people about.

It’s not that we want to publicly correct people and make them feel bad. Rather, we want to silently judge them and feel morally superior, but in a very quiet way that no one else knows about.

Don’t get me wrong: we totally tell each other in our word nerd group text chats. We share photos of the offending apostrophe misuse and make clever, cutting remarks because we’re too shy to actually be rude and confrontational in real life. But believe me, when you use it to pluralize words like banana’s and 1980’s, we’re totally mocking you.

The only time you should pluralize with apostrophe-s is with single letters: Oakland A’s and Model T’s.

The apostrophe has recently made the news again, over in Twyford, England.

It seems that the bureaucratic dunderheads who run the place had removed an all-important apostrophe from the street sign for St. Mary’s Terrace.

I hope you’re as shocked as I am, but something tells me you’re not.

They had renamed it St. Marys Terrace.

The new name was so incorrect, that my grammar checker flagged that previous sentence as wrong, and I refuse to fix it. I could click the Ignore option, but I won’t do that either. I’m going to let that little red squiggle shine out, like a red lightbulb of righteousness against one foggy evening of ignorance.

The change was so outrageous that a retired schoolteacher launched a campaign against the city council to return St. Mary’s beloved apostrophe.

But bureaucrats are gonna bureaucrat: The council had a policy that said all new street signs could not have any apostrophes, even if the previous version had one. Rather than being correct, they were going to be governed by the arrogance of mediocrity.

And so, having solved homelessness, crime and drug addiction in this village of 10,000, the city council went about replacing signs that bore the offending apostrophe.

Except to remove the apostrophe was to deliberately be wrong, which has deep moral implications. To paraphrase Albert Camus, a society without apostrophes is a wild beast loosed upon this world.

Plus, I think their council leader was telling a bit of a fib when he presented their reasons for besmirching the noble apostrophe.

City council leader Martin Tod told The Guardian, “Clear and unambiguous street and place names are vital for postal and other delivery services and also for the emergency services, and punctuation can make that more difficult, particularly with modern computer systems.”

Artificial intelligence can write entire novels in minutes or create realistic-looking human beings that can hold real conversations with real people. So I’m sure your emergency services computer isn’t going to send an ambulance to the other side of town over it.

The chair of The Apostrophe Protection Society, Bob McCalden, said this is not a trivial issue. He told The Guardian, “Apostrophes in road or town names generally have real significance. They were put in because there was some association with local history. Getting rid of apostrophes from street names is a form of cultural vandalism. It’s like spelling (the name) wrong.”

McCalden also said council leader Tod’s excuse was “nonsense.”

“Having worked in IT for many years, it is absolutely standard to write algorithms that ignore punctuation and even spelling variations,” McCalden said. “I find it very difficult to believe the emergency services require precise spelling.”

It sounds like council leader Tod was either sadly misinformed or not being completely honest.

He needs to learn to mind his p’s and q’s.

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