Grow up and just hop off

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Everyone seems confused by the possessive tadpole, so does it still have a role? Rick Wilson thinks it should be put down

AS your friendly neighbourhood apostrophe policeman, albeit self-appointed, I have witnessed many atrocities that have seriously abused the innocent wee tadpoles; but this one takes the crusty bannock.

Sorry, but I'm going to (almost) name and shame. It's in the Guardian media pages, and the perpetrator is a company in Shrewsbury. It's advertising for a graduate trainee editorial assistant who, among other things, could take on proof-reading - a great idea, I would venture, as the heading says "Childrens's magazines".

It's no good shrugging and saying we know the English can't handle their own language, because we can't handle it either. Given the paucity of punctuation teaching today, what hope does this company really have of recruiting a graduate who can spell and punctuate and especially know where to put those high commas?

I say "high" commas, but the other day I saw a poster on which they had slipped rather badly. It said: "We stock France,s finest wine,s."

Before we ponder what's going on here, let's consider a few more examples that have made me snort like the Tunbridge Wells fuddy-duddy I hope I haven't become. There were the strawberry's you could pick yourself, the cheque's you could cash instantly, the new television serie's, and the wine's and spirit's that had me literally climbing up the wall - behind the signwriter whose ladder I stepped on to point out his mistake.

I can almost forgive the butcher who, when asked why his "chicken's" and "duck's" had apostrophes all over them, retorted angrily that his poultry was "clean as a whistle". But speaking as a non-academic, I have been unable to forgive the commission of apostrophe catastrophes by those expected - and often paid - to know better. When asked to address the possessive problem, many a media student has given me the same response I got from that signwriter - a glaikit stare that says "what the hell is this guy on about?"

The poor little tadpole is being cruelly abused. People know they are meant to use it but don't really know how, so they adopt a scatter-gun approach.

But if it's just thrown randomly at any old concluding "s" in any old possessive, what puzzles me is why, against the law of averages, so few make a fortuitous landing. As well as the extra ones and misplaced ones, of course, there are the missing ones. There's scant hope for pupils'

understanding if a parent (yours truly) has to write to a top fee-paying Edinburgh girls' school to complain that all the eye-high signs are wrong, from Girls Entrance to Janitors House. (For the record, corrections were made.) But, on sober reflection, maybe the graphic artists and headteachers have a point. Maybe they are just being realistic. Maybe they have just accepted that, thanks to the laissez-faire "expression" teaching of the 1980s and 1990s, we now have a second generation of the Great Untaught - at least as far as punctuation goes. And so maybe we might as well forget it.

As a young sub-editor, I was always taught to "leave it out if in doubt".

Where nothing but doubt exists, that has to be particularly pertinent. I could argue passionately for a return to the sharp precision of the tweedy teachers who taught me my tadpoles in the 1950s. But let's face it, it's too late.

So in place of the wrong and the random, perhaps the answer is a short, sharp exit. Let's make it official. Put the wee beastie out of its misery once and for all.

I could live with that. I could hang up my policemans hat and get on with my life.

Rick Wilson is a freelance journalist and a former editor of the Scotsman magazine.

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