Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Treasure the apostrophe, dear pedants, while ye may

Share

Sometimes, in the small hours of the morning, I lie awake with a recurring nightmare. Are all
Independent on Sunday readers pedants? Or it is only the pedants who write to this column? I shall probably never know. But certainly, it wouldn't be difficult to fill this slot every week with readers' complaints about apostrophes, commas, hyphens, plurals, misspellings and mispronunciations, not to mention oxymorons, litotes and even more arcane points of grammar.

Indeed, it would be possible to make a good living from it, as has Lynne Truss, author of the best-selling 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves'. Now the self-styled 'Queen of Punctuation' has written a book for children, which aims to do for youngsters' appreciation of words and grammar what all those English teachers in bog-standard comprehensive schools have failed at for a generation. Schoolmarm Truss told recently how she "dies inside quietly" over the number of well-educated adults who misuse words. "I have recently noticed," she says, "that quite clever people are using the word 'enervate' (Concise Oxford definition: 'to deprive of vigour or vitality') as if it means its exact opposite, 'energise'. 'Oh,' they say, 'that cold shower was so enervating I went out for a 10-mile run.' My only response is to gasp."

In 'The Girl's Like Spaghetti', Truss demonstrates basic rules of punctuation with some ingenious examples, such as a sentence that works both for "it's" and "its". "Look, it's behind," say some children watching a turtle lose a race. "Look, its behind," say another group, sniggering at a horse's backside. Truss does admit she may be ruining the lives of the innocent by imposing the rules of the apostrophe on them. And she's right to worry. As a young journalist it was a struggle for me to overcome the years spent parsing at my old-fashioned grammar school and to write spontaneously without fearing a clip round the ear with a Gowers or a Fowler.

For most youngsters now, the digital age offers a revolution in ways to communicate with ease. It may be a heresy for a readers' editor to utter, but perhaps the time has come to weigh up the importance of the apostrophe or semicolon against the spontaneity of emailing, blogging or networking on Facebook. The rules are changing for adults, too. An email response in seconds, with the odd apostrophe missing is often preferable to a meticulously composed letter that takes days to arrive – if at all. You'd be surprised at how many senior journalists and literary figures write punctuationless emails, like fragments from eecummings.

Truss says she laments "the overnight erosion of the 500-year ascendancy of print". But the era of rigidly standardised spellings and grammar didn't arrive until well into the 18th century – after Samuel Johnson wrote his dictionary, and long after Caxton. It may yet prove to be but a blip in the rich history of the development of the English language.

'The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can't Manage Without Apostrophes!' (Profile Books, £8.99)

Corrections and clarifications

It's certainly not pedantic to point out a howler in our TV pages – 'Frankenstein', we stated, was written by Bram Stoker. It was, of course, written by Mary Shelley. Bram Stoker was the author of 'Dracula'.

readerseditor@independent.co.uk

Message Board: GM crops: food for all or ghastly experiment?

The genetic modification of crops and other produce is not to everyone's taste, as bloggers demonstrated, airing their views at www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Rebecca Downey

We have no idea what the impact may be from GM foods. And that is really the point. You do not want to release a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle, once it is found to be a problem.

robbo

We have been meddling with food production for centuries and for several decades in terms of altering its natural pattern. It's time to get on with a project which may also solve many problems.

Kevin Dear

The philanthropic spin that is frequently put on GM research, such as feeding the Third World, would be easier to swallow if the resulting seed carried no patent and was available to all free.

jonathandgjones

Never before have such expensive and onerous regulations been established in response to purely hypothetical anxieties. GM agriculture is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Jessica Scott

With GM crops there is much higher resistance to disease, which means that chemicals are no longer necessary. It is the use of GM technology and organic farming together that will enable us to grow healthier chemical-free food.

Cynicus

The current bulk of GM crops is designed to accept matched herbicides, marketed by the same biotech companies. Ever-rising amounts of herbicide are needed to counter inevitable weed tolerance.

Jeremy Poynton

The crucial matter here is yet another case of the Government working behind our backs. So much now is clouded in secrecy, and one cannot but wonder why.

Theresa Felsinger

We have not inherited the earth, but borrowed it from our children. Let us all become modern day heretics and fight the pharmas. Let's make the earth a sacred place to dwell, organically.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album