What with the triggering of Article 50 by Prime Minister Theresa May, the poodle foreign policy of shaggy Boris Johnson vis-a-vis Russia, and the possible end of London, as per the New York Times, there’s a full slate of troublesome issues weighing on England. She is a country in search of a hero. Last week, she found one.
After a BBC report catapulted him to fame, public adoration has fallen upon a man known only as the Grammar Vigilante, or as the BBC would have it, “the Banksy of punctuation.” Though his name is a mystery, his mission is not secret. The unidentified middle-age engineer from Bristol, a town on the River Avon in the southwest of England, has for the last 13 years inserted missing apostrophes into signs where needed and elided those aberrant ones.
It began in 2003 when he removed a pair of interloping apostrophes in a sign reading, “Open Monday’s to Friday’s.” Later, he erased the second (errant) apostrophe in Amy’s Nail’s on Gloucester Road. His most recent intervention was inserting an apostrophe on the sign of Tucks & Tails, a Gentleman’s Tailor. On Monday, BBC Four Radio released a 30-minute documentary, The ‘Apostrophiser’, devoted to the man and his work. It unfolds like an extremely slow-paced mumblecore Serial.
Around the world, copyeditors and pedants have heralded the Grammar Vigilante, while tartly noting an apostrophe is more accurately punctuation than grammar. Regardless, many find him a bulwark against a certain moral torpidity for which lax punctuation is simply a canary in the mine. Others, the business owners whose signs he vandalizes, rather he’d mind his own business.
Too much ink has already been spilled on various other forms of punctuation. Singled out for particular, vehement, deeply felt, and prodigious discussion is the serial comma. The use of the comma has had real and recent effects. In May, an appeals court in the first district of the United States found a dairy company owed its employees over $10 million in overtime wages, all because of the absence of a serial comma.
Commas deal with things in a series, offer clues to the importance of one bit of information to the whole, and indicate a nice place to pause for a rest. They are down to earth, solid, and embedded like flagstones in fields. But when the comma floats up, like Charlie and Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to become an apostrophe, its task becomes altogether more complicated.
Think of the multi-tasking apostrophe, the hardest working mark in punctuation. The apostrophe indicates possession as in Charlie’s Angels or Victoria’s Secret. It is also the pinch-hitter for a realm of awkward situations, as when numbers go plural and are at 6’s and 7’s or the do’s and don’t’s of etiquette must be conveyed. Add to that the zone coverage the apostrophe plays in contractions from don’t and won’t to syncopes like fo'c’sle and ne’er-do-well. Can you give an apostrophe a break if, for example, he doesn’t want to grace every awning in Bristol on which someone is claiming possession of something else?
But, one feels, the depth of feeling occasioned by the Grammar Vigilante’s long-term solitary pursuit of punctuative justice has less to do with the mark itself and everything to do with the world around it. As has been quite frequently noted, levels of global uncertainty are at all-time highs. For the first time since the Office of National Statistics survey began, England’s level of well-being has slowed. The English will soon no longer be European and the world they once saw as solid has proven dismayingly fleeting. A New World Order is in the offing, a new view ascendant, and it will no longer be England’s. Sometimes an apostrophe is all there is to hold on to.