Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Treasure the apostrophe, dear pedants, while ye may

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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

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