From Brexit bedlam to Hong Kong chaos, global crises made 2019 an exhausting year. But away from the plethora of headline-grabbing events, one man’s long and lonely campaign came to a quiet end. It was a painful moment for those people who treasure the English language.
John Richards, a 96-year-old former journalist, had devoted a large part of his life fighting to save … the apostrophe. But in 2019 he finally had to concede defeat. ‘We have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won,’ he told the BBC.
How could it have come to this? Mr Richards had a succinct and devastating response, ‘It seems that fewer organisations and individuals care about the correct use.’
There is plenty of evidence to support his claim, even from businesses that could be considered guardians of the language.
Only this week, I was scrolling through a newspaper's mobile phone app when I spotted a story about UK universities. Read the home page standfirst (below). It certainly left me scratching my head. ‘That’s a huge burden for one poor student to suffer for the shortcomings of a generation,’ I thought.
But wait! When I clicked on the headline to open the full version of the story on a different page, the apostrophe seemed to have a life of its own. It had moved places, changing the meaning of the text in the process. Either that, or the number of students had suddenly multiplied. This is what it said:
It appears that even professional journalists have a problem with the apostrophe. But why is it so difficult to understand how to use it?
The apostrophe has three (in my view, straightforward) jobs:
An apostrophe is added to the subject that is carrying out the possession. For example:
The apostrophe is used in place of missing letters when words are combined:
An apostrophe is used to make plurals of lower case letters easier to understand. For example:
However, an apostrophe is not used for plurals of upper case letters because there is no ambiguity:
It's simple, really, isn’t it?! In the example of the newspaper article above, the journalist wanted to refer to the money worries of many students. So the correct use of the apostrophe would have been the students’ money worries, because it indicates plural possession.
So, please think of poor old John Richards, because his battle should have been an easy one to win. By the way, did I tell you about his comma campaign?
• The Plain English Campaign has put together an easy-to-follow guide to the apostrophe, which includes additional words of advice.