As It Happens

Apostrophe Protection Society shuts down after 18 years, blaming 'ignorance and laziness'

British grammarian and former copy editor John Richards is closing down the Apostrophe Protection Society because he says "ignorance and laziness" have won.

'People have decided that the apostrophe is going to disappear,' says 96-year-old founder John Richards

John Richards, founder of Apostrophe Protection Society, says he is giving up his 18-year-long fight to protect the punctuation mark from misuse and oblivion. (Submitted by John Richards)

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For the past 18 years, John Richards has been the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society. His job? To urge people to use proper punctuation. 

But now, almost two decades after he set out on this journey, his hopes have been dashed. Period.

Richards, who is 96, has just announced that he's closing down the society. He told As it Happens host Carol Off the battle against punctuation misuse has been lost.

Here is part of their conversation.

Does it seem to you that the forces of evil have won?

I'm afraid you're quite right. Yes, I do feel that way.

You fought for the apostrophe to be used correctly. What do you think allowed the barbarians to succeed?

A mixture of ignorance and laziness. I think a lot of people don't care very much about being totally correct, so they fear it. If you want an apostrophe, put it anywhere. They don't bother to learn the right place or wrong place.

Why does it matter so much to you?

Because I like the English language. It is very expressive. And the apostrophe plays a very important part in it. A lot of people now are deliberately not using apostrophes in their correspondence and letters and so on ... because they don't know where to put it, so it's best to leave it out.

You know, we spoke with you when you first started the Apostrophe Protection Society back in 2001 — 18 years ago, full of passion about what you're going to do. Do you remember that, remember how hot you felt about dealing with protecting apostrophes back then?

 I do remember that, yes. I'm afraid that's leaked away a little now.

And why do you think it's leaked away?

People have decided that the apostrophe is going to disappear. It may not be immediate, but it will be in a few years ... and most people won't be bothered at all.

But do you think in 18 years it's actually got worse since you started this work?

Yes, I do.

I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, and it's becoming more and more the apostrophe in the wrong place, or not used at all.

What have you done to try and fix that?

When it's come to my attention, I have a standard letter which I send to them — pointing out the mistake, or what I think is a mistake, and suggesting how it could be righted and asking for their co-operation. It's a polite letter.

And do they respond to you?

Some of them do. Some of them are slightly rude. The sort of thing would be, you know, "Why bother about it? Why don't you get a life?" 

But I don't bother about that. You know, it's what people think. I can only put forward what I think is right. It's up to them.

But the apostrophe is a tricky little little bit of business, isn't it? It is both used for possessive, and also for contractions. So don't you think it's kind of hard to use?

Yes I do. There is a lot of people who just don't know where the apostrophe could go, and what is more important is they don't bother to find out.

Why do you think they don't bother to find out?

I don't think they care. They're not concerned very much for the English language. The English language is deteriorating in the U.K., generally. I think people just don't bother about getting things right.

What are the most egregious examples you have of the abuse of apostrophes?

A café has opened near me, and he's put in the window: "COFFEE'S" — when there shouldn't be an apostrophe at all. So I went in and had a word with the owner, and he said, "Well, I think it looks better with the apostrophe."

There's no sense of what it meant at all. It just looked better.

So he's using the apostrophe as decoration?

Yes, exactly.

A lot of places are removing the apostrophe in the names of streets or villages. We spoke with you in 2013 when the District of Mid Devon in England was planning to make official its policy of omitting apostrophes. Do you remember that?

I do remember. I don't know what happened in the end.

Well, you won. They reversed their decision

I don't remember the result. But we did win, did we?

Yes, you did. 

Good, good.

Well, now maybe you've been winning more than you realize. Maybe you're not as defeated as you believe yourself to be.

Yesterday and today, I must have received over 100 emails from people saying how disappointed they were that I'm leaving and closing it down. But as far as I'm concerned, at my age, I just haven't got the energy to keep it going. But I hope someone else will.

Produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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