Peter Coleman: Rupert, here’s how you can save more than a few apostrophes

Dec 30, 2021 at 05:15 pm by admin

It’s a few years – probably a decade or more – since I heard publisher and broadcaster Richard Walsh make the case to PANPA for abandoning apostrophes, especially those of the greengrocers’ variety.

Maybe now its time has finally come – as Byron Echo cofounder David Lovejoy says this week in a belated obituary to the Apostrophe Protection Society – but I have a feeling we should all fight to the bitter end, in the cause of journalistic standards.

In fact, the UK society announced its demise a couple of years back, with little apparent attention. ‘Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language. We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won,’ it announced.

Or are winning, at least, and not just on apostrophes.

I clipped a sentence from national daily The Australian this week to show where “ignorance and laziness” are getting us:

‘Nicholson said their was a lot if “bucket work’’ aboard but this was sin reference to widespread seasickness,’ Amanda Lulham wrote in a report on the Rolex Sydney Hobart yacht race. Nothing personal Amanda; you’ll find errors such as these elsewhere on an everyday basis.

And no, there’s not even a misplaced apostrophe, but instead an indication of what happens when there’s nothing between writer and reader to check for errors.

No proofreader or linotype operator – yes, I’m old enough to remember when they would bring a badly-spelled story back to shame the reporter who wrote it – and apparently no sub-editor or “improver” either. Putting the writer’s byline on a story used to work, too.

You’d think Microsoft Word or even an app such as Grammarly might intervene at Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media house, but apparently not. Lovejoy says surveys have shown that fewer than five out of ten people can use the apostrophe correctly, “and of those who cannot, many are employed as subeditors in our daily newspapers.

“In fact ignorance of the apostrophe is a requisite to work for online news sites.”

But is that an argument in favour of the lowest common denominator? A journey to where Lovejoy – hopefully with tongue sticking out of cheek – is “longin 2 c owr langwidge riten simple wiv no hard spelins or funi marx, an awl riten difrent cos rools r eleetist”.

Just back from four months in the UK, I can report that the “eleetist” practice of having newsreaders there speak the Queen’s English has been abandoned, with some apparently delighting in mispronunciation, justified in the name of “diversity”.

Lovejoy is puzzled how anyone can get apostrophe usage wrong – “all you have to do is concentrate for a few seconds and ask yourself, am I saying a shortened version of it is or it has or am I using the word its in its other meaning of belonging to it” – but he’s preassuming the willingness or inclination to get it right.

So do we have to give up on apostrophes – and other forms of correct usage – just because, albeit “not rocket science” (as Lovejoy puts it) it takes care and thought to get them right?

Remember when the infant Desktop Publishing gave everyone 35 typefaces and the immediate capability to create a typographical dog’s breakfast? Software largely fixed the problem, just as Word has to some extent done with grammar (though I regularly take issue with its universal use of ‘that’ instead of ‘which’).

Am I unfair in citing the printed word of Australia’s national daily? I don’t think so, given its implied responsibility to lead from the front; to set a standard, and show readers what correct spelling and grammar look like.

So Rupert, if you’re reading this – and I’m sure you’re not – how about supporting a stand for better written work; so-called premium content which recognises the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’; between ‘if’ and ‘of’.

Software could fix it, even without requiring a journalist to “concentrate for a few seconds”, but hey, you can probably afford both.

Peter Coleman

Sections: Columns & opinion


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