Readers who are keen grammarians, like me, might be baffled by the Wildabout feature in the April issue of Cornwall Today. It’s about Kings Wood near St Austell. That’s right – Kings Wood. No apostrophe. I triple checked it myself, on the Woodland Trust website. It doesn’t matter that it was named in honour of a monarch who visited centuries ago; it does not carry an apostrophe of ownership.
You can choose to be “correct” (or, as some might have it, “bloody-minded”) about such matters; or you can settle for consistency. I plumped for the latter; as such, you shouldn’t find a single apostrophe where the name occurs, not even on the cover. If you do, feel free to write in and complain – not an invitation I issue lightly.
Missing apostrophes reared their heads recently when Mid-Devon Council announced its intention to remove them – and all forms of punctuation – from new street signs, so as not to “baffle” residents. The Plain English Campaign branded the idea ‘nonsense’, while the Apostrophe Appreciation Society called it ‘disgusting’. I can think of worse things to happen, but it seems to have worked, for the council leader is to recommend a reversal of the policy at the end of the month.
It would be sad to see the apostrophe disappear on street signs, and it would be the beginning of the end without a doubt. Gradually, it would be dropped elsewhere, eventually to become extinct. Future generations would regard it as an archaic eccentricity. In fact, it’s probably inevitable.
You might expect a wordsmith like me to deplore poor standards of literacy. Facebook friends will be familiar with my occasional rants about poor punctuation and spelling, usually triggered by national PRs sending me releases which are not only irrelevant to my publication, but full of howlers to boot. On the one hand, these mark my out as a true conservative; on the other, such status updates attract a lot of comments, so I must be in good company.
While I do get annoyed by greengrocers’ apostrophes and inappropriate mis-spellings (eg in requests for work experience), I’m less hidebound than you might think. I’ve been known to write “C U 2moz” in text speak, but you won’t see that creeping into my professional work.
As a former language student, I’m interested in communication in all its forms – spoken and written – and indulge in the odd anoraky book. At university, I read Language Change: Progress Or Decay, by eminent linguist Jean Aitchison, and it stayed with me. It’s not a difficult concept to follow – we don’t speak as our ancestors did in the times of Chaucer or Shakespeare, so why should we expect our descendants to speak as we do? The things we sniff at today may well be the norms of tomorrow, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
I’m on a bit of a roll at the moment when it comes to anoraky books. I started with Just My Type – a history of fonts by Simon Garfield. I now know that the font Cornwall Today uses (Frutiger if you please) is named after Adrian Frutiger, the Swiss typographer who invented it, and was first used on information signs in Parisian airports.
Then I moved onto Spell It Out by David Crystal. I heard him interviewed on the Today programme, and thought, “There’s a book for me.” I’m a pretty good speller, but I wanted to know why other people find it so hard. Crystal explains very clearly how the irregularities we find frustrating in the English language stem were influenced by many factors – the habits of scribes, the preferences of printers (who made more money if they used more ink, hence longer words), and the influence of foreign languages (Latin, French, even Flemish).
It’s fascinating, and what I found especially interesting is that David Crystal, who is a leading expert on the subject, does not see a spelling system in decline, but one in a natural state of development in our multi-media world. For example, he believes that text speak, far from eroding our ability to spell, will strengthen it. After all, you have to really understand how language works in order to subvert it.
And the way that spelling is taught needs some serious thought. Rules such as “ie before e except after c” do not always follow, and lists of words that are not connected or placed in context are pointless. I still recall being asked to spell “succour”, a word I’d never encountered before, and didn’t know the meaning of. I spelled it “sucker” and lost a mark; on arguing that this was a valid spelling, I was told that it wasn’t the word I’d been asked to learn. To this day, it’s a word I rarely use, but always remember.
Then there’s the word from the reading test that we followed right through primary school. It was the last word on the list, the only one I couldn’t manage. When the teacher was out of the room, I wrote it down on a scrap of paper, then took it home and asked my mum: what is it? The word was “idiosyncrasy”. Today, I think it’s quite a good word, but aged 10, it meant nothing. I suppose you could argue that we were being tested on our ability to apply acquired knowledge and guess at a pronunciation, but even so, it was hardly a realistic gauge of a child’s linguistic skills. It looks so alien to any other word I know. It has too many ys, and why idio, rather than ideo? (Answer: it’s from Greek rather than Latin. Thanks, Wikidictionary.)
I’m now reading Lost For Words: The Mangling And Manipulation Of The English Language by John Humphrys. Just when I think it’s straying into real “grumpy old man” territory, he throws up something that has me cheering in agreement.
For the record, my pet hates are:
• Use of the word “unique” in press releases, to describe something that is anything but, drives me potty. Unless you can prove it, don’t use it.
• The most misspelled word in history is definitely “definitely”.
• The creeping use of “yourself”, especially in call centre speak, to denote an obsequious professionalism, ie. “I’m just calling yourself because…”, makes me hang up on the spot.
I am not perfect. You may well wish to print out this blog, go through it with a red pen and send it to my office. Go right ahead – if it adds to the debate, that’s fine by me.