If in doubt, leave it out. I have always found this a handy rule for life that can be applied in a variety of everyday situations: orange juice in vodka, Findus lasagne in shopping trolleys, politicians in Comic Relief. But it is also the maxim that my old English teacher used after repeatedly trying and failing to explain to our class when to use an apostrophe.
You, wise reader, will be fully aware of when the jaunty little stroke of the pen or the upside-down teardrop on your keyboard is called for, and when it is not. You will have groaned at the chalkboard signs outside your local greengrocer, and – worse – the ones permanently fixed above a shop, thousands of pounds spent by a hairdresser on a wayward apostrophe. Sometimes they fall down to become a sad little comma, as though the punctuation mark itself is hanging its head in shame at its misuse.
There are those brave defenders of the English language, like Keith Waterhouse and Lynne Truss, who have tried to explain the rules. But it is clearly not working. So Im proposing something radical that everyone can understand: lets have a blanket ban on apostrophes altogether.
Mid-Devon District Council can be the nations lodestar: it has announced a ban on apostrophes in street signs, to avoid confusion. So if youre in Cullompton looking for St Georges Well, it doesnt matter how many dragon-killing saints there were. If people dont know their punctuation, they wont know their history either. Call this column Emperors New Clothes. Make it a guessing game how many emperors there were, and whether the clothes belonged to him, or them.
While were at it, why stop at the apostrophe. Is there any other punctuation that gets in the way. Is the question mark being over-used, especially when everyone is talking like an Australian by allowing their voice to rise at the end of a sentence, even when a question is not being asked.
These could go: colons and semi-colons. The exclamation mark is very ostentatious for these straitened times. As you can see once you start messing around with grammar and punctuation its very difficult to stop