Cambridge’s ‘Capostrophe’

Grammar enthusiasts nationwide have recently been enraged after hearing of Cambridge City Council’s decision to abolish apostrophes on all existing and new street signs, their reasoning being that apostrophes could potentially be misleading to drivers. Naturally, this has caused what could be deemed The Cambridge Riots: proud and very angry grammarians with hand-made signs and, as the Cambridge News has reported, carrying around marker pens to personally adjust any apostrophe misplacement. This entire episode has sparked a great grammatical debate – why exactly are we so passionate about grammar? Are standards really failing or just changing?

You wouldn’t be totally wrong to assume that people simply don’t care about grammar anymore, or just aren’t as thorough with it. Whilst, yes, I personally have been guilty of tweeting the odd photo of a hairdresser window’s spelling mistake and various (self-denying tabloid) publications’ grammar faux pas, one cannot deny that there have never been more influences affecting our grammar. Simply cite our social networking addictions and, as mentioned, our reliance on less than reputable online publications. Even some teachers nowadays struggle to give thirty children the correct spelling to copy down into their workbooks. The headmaster of Brighton College, which recently scored 54th place in The Telegraph’s Top 100 Secondary Schools by GCSE Results, has complained that out of 30 CVs and covering letters for a teaching post, 12 were “semi-literate.” How can children be expected to become literate, apostrophe-aware adults (an apparently crucial asset nowadays) when the adults supposedly teaching them these rules aren’t even sure themselves? Relating to Cambridge’s capostrophe, there is the pertinent argument that perhaps the removal of the apostrophes wouldn’t be hindering other people’s grammar (nor causing such a fuss) if they were well educated on them in the first place.

The correct position of apostrophes, much like, for example, the elusive Oxford Comma, seems no longer a simple matter of language but a ferocious cult. As a self-proclaimed Grammar Nazi I can totally understand the outrage at this incident involving some of Cambridge’s most historic roads. Why are we so passionate about grammar? The fraction of us who still get some sort of sad thrill out of finding a misuse of there/their/they’re would argue that incorrect grammar can not only hinder communication but also show unprofessionalism in marketing. With this in mind, CVs and cover letters are scrutinised by employers, with some even enforcing fines for grammatical mistakes (or, for example, repetition of ‘like’) in the office, as Sue Shellenbarger investigated in 2012 for The Wall Street Journal – even for what we might consider minor errors, such as confusion of ‘there is’ and ‘there are’. Professional point of view aside, are some obnoxious people simply trying to appear intellectual? This is certainly not out of the question; it’s an intellect boost that makes us feel slightly superior. Or are we simply being traditionalists? We live in a fast-paced society and people want new, not old. Is our clinging onto correct grammar just our yearning for ‘the good old days’?

On the other hand, maybe our standards are not declining but simply evolving. If you were unaware, ‘twerk’ is now in the Oxford Dictionary. Times are most definitely a changing. It’s inevitable that words will, over time, change their meaning, pronunciation and spelling. Many grammarians (often of the obnoxious type) seem to have some sort of misconception that before recent years, the English language was that of high formalities – a stark contrast with today’s modern, casual slang used by most people, in most situations. They are mistaken: our language is constantly in transition. With this frame of mind, one can see why people get irked about others getting irked about “youths” commenting and writing in their own slang. Surely the fact that most of the time it is fairly clear what they’re saying simply shows that this is the overtaking language in our society? It’s hardly as if it’s some sort of abstract code. I’m sure every English Literature student is currently feeling similar emotions towards the ‘Medieval’ section of the course – to us it’s completely foreign, but as one point it was the norm. Perhaps we are simply unwilling to accept change. Our grammar is

constantly changing, and the extent to which English grammar has been simplified has provoked debate over whether it could be even further simplified. It has been suggested by linguists that eventually we may dispense of ‘these’ and ‘those’, not to mention possibly dropping the ‘S’ in the third person of the present tense. Other, perhaps more innovative, linguists are currently yearning for fresh material, suggesting new pronouns for the third person in indirect speech and there’s even talk of a completely new pronoun of common gender and singular number to replace ‘everyone’ and ‘each’ in order to abolish the annoyance of having to specify ‘each did his or her best’ or ‘everyone did what they wanted’. Is our society’s disregard for apostrophes just natural grammar evolution and the way forward?

Out of interest on how correct the grammar of fellow students is, I used website Grammar Monster’s apostrophe test (featuring options such as ‘Each month accrues an extra day’s / days’ leave.’) on 12 students across different subjects. 8 scored full marks, 2 scored 6 and a further 2 ranked at the bottom with 5s. This only touched on basic apostrophic rules but shows that, as young people, our grammar ain’t that bad. What adults don’t tend to understand is that, for the vast majority of us, how we may text and Facebook our friends (though with iPhones and autocorrect, it’s now far less effort to type ‘properly’ anyway) is not actually how we would genuinely write an answer in an exam, apply for a job with or send emails with. This divides opinion: on one hand, if you know when to ‘turn on’ correct spelling and grammar, for when it really matters, then what’s the problem? Is a lack of public apostrophes really going to worsen this? On the other, one can easily get out of practice and confuse the two language arenas – so why not just type the Queen’s English all the time to maintain standards and rid this reputation?

Personally, I empathise with the Cambridge protestors and general outrage – yes language is evolving rapidly, as always, but something as instrumental as the placing of an apostrophe, a placement which can easily alter the meaning of a sentence, should stay set. Abandon language snobbery by all means; people who say our language is deteriorating clearly have trouble accepting change. However, this said, I can’t quite see myself proclaiming how happy I am to have bought a new set of pens whose sole purpose will be to essentially graffiti grammatical corrections over Cambridge street signs (a genuine quote from the Cambridge News). Finally, yes, in my opinion it’s a grammatical disgrace anywhere, but in Cambridge of all places? Pleez.

Riona Doherty

For The Student