BOSTON'S APOSTROPHE MAN
By Eric Shackle
George Richards, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald's popular Column 8, has for years fought the misuse of apostrophes, through a fictitious, nitpicking character he calls Apostrophe Man. In a classic case of Life copying Art, a retired copy editor and reporter in the English town of Boston has formed an Apostrophe Protection Society. By a fantastic coincidence his name is John Richards. I don't think he's related to George.
Aided by his son by his son Stephen, the only other foundation member of the APS, John started sending a form letter to the English Boston's numerous apostrophe offenders.
"Dear Sir or Madam," he writes. "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. . . We would like to emphasise that we do not intend any criticism, but are just reminding you of correct usage should you wish to put right the mistake."
London's Daily Telegraph ran a story by Peter Foster about the APS under the headline Greengrocer's grammar sends a purist bananas. It told how Mr Richards, 75, delivers a polite letter on headed Apostrophe Protection Society notepaper through the door of anyone in Boston, Lincs, he finds breaking the rules.
As a result, John received more than 500 letters of support, as well as several monetary contributions to his cause. Next day the Telegraph published a letter from Derek Snoxall, of West Sussex, who wrote: "I applaud the foundation of the Apostrophe Protection Society. This is long overdue and tush to those who say otherwise. I suggest that the misuse of commas be attended to at the same time. On a recent visit to Australia I read in a pub lavatory a notice asking people to refrain from putting, amongst other things, 'babies, nappies down the toilet'."
Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, told the Telegraph: "Greengrocers might do it [misplace apostrophes] out of ignorance, but it is also being used intentionally to draw attention to what you are selling, In the informal setting you can do what you like. That's the way language works."
Prof Aitchison predicted that the apostrophe would probably begin to disappear where it was not essential as a distinguishing marker. Fowler's Modern English Usage agrees, pointing out that many businesses - Barclays Bank, Diners Club, Mothers Pride bread - have already dropped apostrophes, a trend "that seems certain to continue".
The New York Times picked up the story, publishing an item headed Boston Journal: Minder of Misplaced Apostrophes Scolds a Town. Sarah Lyall wrote: "The campaign has had limited success so far, with only one establishment (the local library, which expunged the errant apostrophe from its 'CD's' sign) actually taking remedial measures. In general, Boston business owners do not share Mr. Richards's passion for punctuation. 'Sounds to me like this man wants a bleeding job,' [said] Reginald Dunmore, a local butcher whose van advertising 'carvery's' earned him a letter from Mr. Richards."
Six years ago, economic consultant Ian Senior, who lives in Kings Langley, led a campaign for the restoration of an apostrophe to his village's name. Villagers voted 80 to 8 in favor, but the local council vetoed the move. "They initially said they would have to change all the stationery," Mr. Senior told an interviewer. "I said, 'Let the current lot run out and print new paper,' and then they said, 'What about the road signs?'"
Take a look at this CARTOON, Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots! by talented Canadian artist Stephen Notley, whose Angry Flower strip appears weekly in Edmonton's See Magazine.
If John Richards extends his campaign to the Internet, he'll find myriads of misplaced and wrongly used apostrophes, even in his home town's websites. One of them says: "WELCOME TO BOSTON ENGLAND. OUR HOUSE. This is our house. We bought it in September 1999. We have a semi-detached house which means we have another house attached to ours, but its (the APS would insist it's it's) kept seperate (sic) by fences and hedges as most British homes are. We have 5 bedrooms, greenhouse, beautiful gardens and we are one of the few in the neighborhood who own our home as most are known as council homes which are rented by people from the local council."
Boston, (1981 population 26,495) is the small Lincolnshire seaport town from which a small band of Puritans, later known as the Pilgrim Fathers, set off via Plymouth on the 180-ton sailing ship Mayflower. After a stormy voyage across the Atlantic, the ship reached North America at Cape Cod, and the little group landed on Plymouth Rock, to found the first English settlement in New England. The Pilgrims' leaders drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, which provided for democratic government, and gave the name of their hometown to the present U.S. city of Boston.
The Massachusetts town entered the world's history books on December 16, 1773, when irate American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians threw 342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company from ships into Boston Harbour. They were objecting to a tax on tea (taxation without representation) and what they saw to be a monopoly. In the 21st century, school children in both America and England still learn about that famous Boston Tea Party, and grown-ups in many countries stage less imaginative protest demonstrations.
Today, Boston, with 3,783,000 people living in the metropolitan area, is one of America's great cities. "No city in the U.S. is richer in historical associations than Boston, and no city has retained more of its original buildings as memorials to America's past" says The Learning Network.
"Puritans from England settled at Boston in 1630, only 10 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth in 1620. They named their new town Boston, after the former home of many of the Pilgrims in Lincolnshire, England. Fourteen years later, the pioneer Bostonians set aside the first public park in the U.S. - the Boston Common. The following year, 1635, they opened the first free public school in America. Today, the Boston metropolitan area is home to 68 colleges and universities."
In an interesting article headed The Original Boston Rodger W. Doughty, who lives in the English Boston, writes: "Although there was not a single Bostonian amongst the original flock who sailed to the New World in the Mayflower in 1620, it came as no surprise when many local people made the crossing in the 1630's as part of a large scale emigration.
"Puritan Boston became the focus of activity for the plans, led by the family of the Earl of Lincoln. In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company was formed to organize and govern the planned settlement and the next year John Winthrop led a fleet of seven ships and 1,000 settlers. They eventually settled at a site known as Trimountaine, which they re-named Boston.
"During the 1630's about 260 Bostonians left the town (10 percent of the population) to find new homes in Massachusetts. They included leading men such as John Cotton, the town's Vicar, Alderman Leverett, Thomas Dudley and Simon Bradstreet who were steward of the Earl of Lincoln and Richard Bellingham who was Recorder and MP for the town. With them also went Edward Quincey of Fishtoft whose descendant, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth President of the United States in 1826."
Copyright © 2001. Eric Shackle Story first posted July 2001.