Few bores irritate me quite like grammar and punctuation bores. Is there anything more pointless than pointing out someone's misuse of an apostrophe, or that they dared to cheekily split an infinitive? Yes there is. Getting worked up over it.
So, this week, when the book chain Waterstone's decided to drop the apostrophe and become Waterstones, we had the apostrocalypse. Lots of people, wailing and gnashing their teeth publicly, but in secret delighted because it'll give them a subject to bore others stupid with until the end of time. 'Of course, I can barely bring myself to shop in Waterstones since they dropped the apostrophe. No wonder people are leaving school unable to write their own names. Why have you picked up that cheese knife Dan?' There is even, I learned yesterday, an International Apostrophe Day, as well as an Apostrophe Protection Society, for Gods sake.
Why do people buy these books? The ones who do are invariably the pedants who take great joy in pointing out mistakes. They know the rules. So why do they need a book about the rules? Presumably to confirm how virtuous and clever they are, and how stupid and ill-educated everyone else is, and how we're all going to hell in a handcart, which we might be, but it's because of irresponsible politicians, bankers and hacks and not people misusing an apostrophe.
Actually, I have another theory. They're masochists. You see, many of them went to school a long time ago. They were force-fed the rules like those poor geese that end up as foie gras, lesson after unending lesson, year after boring year, given hellfire when they broke them, thus scarring the whole of their school lives. Now, they see the youth of today, wandering around texting, facebooking in their strange language, and they read about these 'trendy' teaching methods that send kids out into the world unable to read and write (copyright: every right-wing newspaper) and it makes them bloody furious. These kids should be made miserable in their lessons like I was, they think. It should be one long tedious grind. They should despise school, hate learning, yet come out with a full command of the rules of English grammar, and feel the metaphorical cold slap of the cane across the palm of their hand each time they break them. Then, for extra pain, they should take a cold shower and flagellate themselves.
I exaggerate. A bit. But this debate (which I realise I'm only adding to here) has been rumbling on for years in the UK, where we have generations of folk who seem to care more about how something is written than what is actually written. A woman named Lynne Truss wrote a very silly book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves which advocated a 'zero tolerance' to punctuation and sold by the bucketload, followed by a raft of apoplectic imitators, each trying to outdo the other, lamenting text speak, and the Internet, and all other modern maladies which are apparently rotting our brain.
The problem with all this reactionary drivel, other than my point above about it focusing on style over content, and a very torpid style at that, is its inflexibility. The English language, the way it is written and punctuated, has always been subject to fashion and trends. It's how it's continued to grow, deepen and become so rich. And let's face it, some of the rules are stupid and arbitrary and deserve to be broken. Take the apostrophe for example. Kids learn it is there to be used for either the possessive or to show an omitted letter. Simple. Except when it comes to 'its' and 'its', when the possessive doesn't have an apostrophe. Why? Because of some rule dreamed up by printers and grammarians of the 19th century for reasons no one really knows. No wonder our children get so confused. A sub-editor once told me there was no greater indication of illiteracy than misusing its and it's. To which I should have told him that nothing indicated a withered, closed mind like the sentence he'd just uttered, but I didn't, because that would have cost me my job.
It's all about clarity and avoiding ambiguity, the grammar and punctuation SS will say. Except it's not. It's about frustration and resisting change and development. Yes, people need to be able to make themselves understood, and presenting your thoughts clearly in writing is important. The main purpose of grammar and punctuation is allowing us to make sense. I believe in teaching people so they can control control the language they use, and work out which words, sentences and structures suit them and what they want to say best, rather than merely learning the rules and being fearful of breaking them. How does that help anyone express themselves? The odd mistake isn't a problem, nor does it indicate anything other than a mistake. English needs to be taught better, and a grasp of the rules is important. But the pedants and purists need to realise that language changes, and that's to be welcomed. Innit?