Slip-ups are now common but should we just abandon apostrophes altogether? Neil Roland says that path is strewn with 'banana skin's'.
Grocers' apostrophes (as opposed to grocer's or worse still grocers) merited a black cross when I was at primary school and 10 black crosses meant forfeiting games for a week. As I loathed sport in all its tedious forms, this might have been the perfect excuse to get these commas-on-stilts wrong every time. But I didn't. Such a ploy would have been inconceivable. Those who believe in the preservation of the English language are despairing as ever-increasing instances of wrongly absent and equally wrongly present apostrophes hit our newsprint and advertising hoardings like a plague of mutant, and sometimes inexplicably invisible, insects.
We were told that grocers' apostrophes (apple's and pear's) were stray punctuation marks that appeared on blackboards outside greengrocers. I assumed that grocers' apostrophes enjoyed regional variations. Perhaps children living in coastal towns called them fishermens' apostrophes (sardine's and pike's). Or perhaps coastal children were spared all this as the plural to so many fish is simply the singular name again.
Apostrophes have become like a wandering tribe. There are, I would guess, roughly the same number as ever there were but no one seems to know where they go any more.
I spent the whole of one Friday's episode of Coronation Street going through my local weekly free newspaper - Britain's largest, if its claims are to be believed, with a circulation of around half a million. The editorial content was, for the most part, free of abandoned and misplaced apostrophes but I counted 213 apostrophe errors in the advertisements of that single edition.
Michael Schmidt, director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University, author of the seminal Lives of the Poets and doyen of the Carcanet Press, has spent his minimal free time blacking out the stray apostrophes on the Metropolitan's signs for toilets.
"One in five students can do apostrophes. It's appalling. The staff are always protesting and there seems no good reason why people have such a problem with them. It'sits and one'sones seem to cause the most confusion. If you look at the signs in St Peter's Square in Manchester, they are all different. The only version not present is St Peters'," he says.
How can the letter s cause such mayhem? Apostrophes look worst when they appear with no purpose at all ("we sell all models of Rover's, Ford's, Renault's"), and capital letters followed by the poor little lower case s is the second most common mistake (TV's, PC's, VCR's). There is no consistency at all: "duplex's and villas", "apartment's and townhouses". That's before any mention of poor old its: it is, it's, its, isn't it, it's not - or is it?
Then there are all the apostrophes sadly unable to be with us here today:
"12 months insurance", "mens wedding suits" and "St Patricks Day". In this category come many of Britain's biggest retail names. Was there really ever a Mr Currys, Mr WH Smiths or Mr Boots? And if it is an acceptable custom to add a meaningless s to any retail name big enough to deserve one, what about Marks amp; Spencer's, Harry Ramsden's or Thornton's Chocolates, all of which incorporate the correct apostrophe.
There are people who would argue that as everyone knows what is meant whether the apostrophe is there, in the right place or not, isn't it time the British language shuffled off the ubiquitous apostrophe - except perhaps for those with O' surnames and some glorious Lancashire place names like Irlams O' Th' Height and Besses O' Th' Barn.
The problem is that meaning is not always clear. True, the advertisement under "personal services" telling us that "Christina's back at Helens" is highly likely to mean that at the establishment of Helen, the happy return of Christina has occurred (and hence your massage can be resumed). Strictly, of course, Christina's back is that area of flesh connected to Christina's front and nobody knows what it is doing with several people named Helen.
London playwright Richard Gallagher is being won over by the idea of relaxing the rules. "I remember when I wrote a play called Mothers' Day for Yorkshire Television, the Radio Times was kind enough to correct my title to read Mother's Day, thus destroying my pun and removing all meaning from my original intention," he explains. "But, much as I hesitate to say it, there are so many instances when it is painfully obvious what the meaning of a phrase is whether the apostrophe is there or not, in such instances I'm not at all sure I would want to see the apostrophe survive through the next century, at least not followed as slavishly as it has been.
"One of the ironies of apostrophes is that the rules about them are not consistent and it has long been accepted that they do not apply when inconvenient. Its, for example, only has an apostrophe to denote a contraction of it is, yet 'its coat' as in 'the dog's coat' has no apostrophe despite being possessive. People have changed the rules before, why not again?" Unsurprisingly, the Reverend John Cooper, archivist of the Queen's English Society and vehement defender of the language, disagrees. To illustrate his point, he cites "the Church of England parish where two church wardens both married women whose names were Agnes. The sentence 'Both my Church wardens' wives are called Agnes' is correct; however, 'both my Church warden's wives are called Agnes' may amount to bigamy".
So how are apostrophes taught and why does it seem not to be working? Gillian Barratt has high hopes it will all get better soon. She has been appointed the literacy consultant for Tameside local education authority. Previously she was literacy co-ordinator at St George's school in Hyde, Cheshire. The Yellow Pages lists three schools by that name, but they are all different. One is a school named after all the saints called George (St Georges'), one is not actually named after anyone, but is an adjective for the school (St Georges), and one is correctly named after St George.
"In September 1998, the Government implemented a pilot scheme for teachers whereby children are asked to make associations on whole texts rather than learning the traditional way of isolated rules by rote," explains Ms Barratt, who believes that the old way "failed because none of the rules had any meaning for children". The new scheme asks that teachers should decide on a focus, say, active and passive verbs, or, in the case of apostrophes, possession and contraction, and then teach them in the context of real language.
"Children can understand concepts offered to them in context. The secret is finding good examples. Do that, and the rules become clear," says Ms Barratt. She admits that apostrophes can be hard to teach: "Often when it's drummed into children how important apostrophes are, they go away and stick them wherever they see an s."
Ms Barratt is concerned that while in theory teachers should embrace the new scheme - indeed her role as consultant involves checking that schools are doing just that and every authority has a literacy consultant - "people don't like change and the feat of monitoring how it is implemented is just too great".
More traditional in approach is Alistair Watson, deputy head of English at the independent William Hulme's grammar school. While apostrophes appear in lessons in the prep school, they are "retaught" in Year 7.
"The problem with this growing habit of open punctuation is that it can cause mayhem in the commercial world into which children are released," explains Mr Watson. "Of course language patterns change and I would say the apostrophe is dying out but it shouldn't be. There is a very real source of confusion when they are misplaced. In the legal sphere, whole cases can stand or fall because of the interpretation of a word. If that is a written word, the absence of an apostrophe can alter a meaning, which can have catastrophic results." Mr Watson goes on to say: "Even when a meaning is obvious to 95 per cent of the population, it's the other 5 per cent who can highlight potential horrors. In recent years, we've actually put a stronger emphasis on learning these grammatical specifics to counter the wider community's tendency to relax them."
What Mr Watson and Ms Barratt do agree on, though, is that losing the apostrophe simply because so many people get it wrong is the thin end of a wedge. "What," asks Mr Watson, "would be next to go?" Neil Roland is a freelance writer and 'Rough Guide' author