xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Punctuation has its place

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Punctuation has its place

Punctuation has its place.
Last week a local radio station featured a news item about some attention grabbing celebrity calling for the abolition of the apostrophe. The station, in an attempt to drum up some interest in itself, invited listeners to send in their ideas for and against the continued use of the apostrophe. I tuned out.

As a lover of language I was saddened by this attempt to dumb down our grammatical heritage. Of course the apostrophe has been a major problem for many years. We know it can be used to denote possession, as in “Tom’s watch” which indicates it is the watch belonging to Tom.  Or as an abbreviation or contraction as in “don’t” which is the short form of “do not.”

However, the apostrophe does have its problems. Just take that word “its” in that last sentence, for instance. You would think it would need an apostrophe because we are using it to identify a problem belonging to it, where it represents the subject. But its doesn’t have an apostrophe to denote possession of something belonging to it. However, neither do other possessive words indicating possession such as yours, theirs or ours. Its only has an apostrophe when it is being used to represent it's as the short form of “it is”.

When I first started teaching in Bunbury back in the late fifties I asked the children to try and find any examples of the incorrect use of apostrophes in signs in local shops.

They collected quite a few, generally where an apostrophe was incorrectly used for plural words such as apples’, tomatoes’ and haircuts’. One classic case of a mismatch between plurals and a possessive apostrophe was a hairdresser in Victoria Street which advertised itself as a Ladie’s Hairdresser.

You may think that only poorly educated people have trouble with apostrophes but that is not true. In 1971 the Mt Lawley Teachers’ College was opened. Its first principal was a much respected educator, Dr Robert Peter. During its first year of operation, questions were asked by the clerical staff as to the college’s correct form of address regarding the use or non use of an apostrophe. Was it Mt Lawley Teacher’s College or Mt Lawley Teachers’ College or perhaps, Mt Lawley Teachers College? All three forms of address were being used by various staff, students and correspondents to the college.

Dr Peter gave the matter serious thought and then declared that henceforth no apostrophe was to be used with regard to the college. From that day on the college was known as Mt Lawley Teachers College…without any apostrophe. So, if a teachers’ college cannot make up its mind about correct apostrophe usage we should not be surprised that lesser mortals have problems with apostrophes and want them killed off.

An apostrophe of course may be described as a comma with ideas above its station. Of course, I believe apostrophes have an essential place in our language and we cannot do without them. Which brings me to the important role that commas play in our language.

Back in Bunbury when I was trying very hard to convince the children in my class of the importance of punctuation I told them this story to show how important even the lowly comma could be.

In the1930s a man in the United States was sentenced to death in the electric chair. His lawyers petitioned the Governor of the state to pardon him because a lot of the evidence was very circumstantial and given by unreliable witnesses with a grudge against the man.

The Warden knew of this petition so, as the hour of the execution approached, he sent a telegram to the state Governor stating, “Execution set for 8-00am. Shall I proceed?”

Just before 8-00am a messenger came to the death chamber and handed the Governor a telegram which read “No pardon given”. The Warden gave the word and the man was electrocuted to death.

Five minutes later a breathless telegraphist rushed into the death chamber. He thrust out a telegram and said, “Warden, there was a mistake in the first message. The Governor just sent this. He put the new telegram into the Warden’s hands. It read, “No, pardon given.”

Well, it wasn’t a true story. I had made it up. However, many children were quite upset to think an innocent man had died for the lack of a comma.

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