Who’d have thought that years after Miss Trunchbull drummed ‘Mrs D- Mrs I –Mrs F-F-I’ into the children in Matilda’s classroom that people would still be unable to grasp the basic elements of punctuation and grammar?
However, today people are so concerned about our language, that we find ourselves caught somewhere amongst ‘punctuation heroes’ and ‘text speech’. If we put ourselves at one end of the scale with Lynne Truss and John Richards, the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, then we essentially believe that apostrophe misuse should be up there with the Ten Commandments: ‘You should not abuse punctuation’.
Truss (2003:7) claims punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling’ and without it ‘there is no reliable way of communicating meaning’ (2003:20). She compares herself to the boy in ‘The Sixth Sense’ who can see dead people, claiming that those who can see dead punctuation which others cannot, have a ‘seventh sense’ (2003:3). Grammar perfectionist Truss has, however, found herself come under criticism when Richards (cited in Moore, 2008) claimed, of apostrophes: ‘Lynne Truss can write what she likes but she’s got to justify why you might use one when there are no missing letters and no possessive sense’. The most common punctuation howler is the ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’ where the writer tries to pluralize words using an apostrophe and an ‘s’ where it’s not required. This was also mentioned by Moore who found herself wondering how expensive Martini’s were compared to your average Martini. Moore (2008) claimed that owing to incorrect use of apostrophes, they are now being used as ‘visual garnish’.
However, not everyone believes that a marker pen should be at hand at all times in case we need to correct grammar and punctuation in the street. David Crystal (2006:153) believes that those sensitive to the ways language works won’t be fooled forever. Language cannot be put in a cage, as it exists to enable us to think and talk about life, which is messy and complex, therefore language must accommodate this. Crystal maintains (2006:161) that what we really need to worry about are ‘false friends’ arguing that spelling rules are the clearest indicators of standard English and so need special attention. He also explains how children shouldn’t be taking all of the blame. John Humphries (cited in Crystal, 2006:155) states ‘I wish the basic rules of grammar were still taught to every child’. This statement relates to a so-called ‘barren period’ of 1960-2000 when formal grammar was not taught at most schools. A great deal of care is now taken in teaching the national curriculum in schools, explaining and imposing rules of grammar. As this help wasn’t available for a forty year period, those who grew up during this time have turned to self help books such as ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’. However. Crystal argues further that these usage manuals, however well written, are of little use to us as linguistic education must take place whilst we are young, claiming ‘if usage manuals lived up to their promises, we would be home and dry by now’ (2006:57).
It is debatable whether our troubles with punctuation are due to ignorance and laziness. We have now come through a technological revolution, and as Crystal (cited in Moore, 2008) claims ‘punctuation has always been a matter of trends (…) subject to changes in fashion’.
LUCY HALLMARK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)
- Crystal, D,. (2006) The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fernandez, C,. (2009). ‘Punctuation hero’ branded a vandal for painting apostrophes on street signs. The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 August.
[Accessed 24 October 2012].
- Moore, V,. (2008). Apostrophe catastrophe! The rogue apostrophe is spreading like measles. It’s time to fight back…. The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 November.
Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1086832/Apostrophe-catastrophe-The-rogue-apostrophe-spreading-like-measles-Its-time-fight-.html#ixzz1sUrKecKO [Accessed 20 October 2012]