Against Good Punctuation

by Daniel Hartley

The book market is strewn with books on ‘correct English’ or good grammar and punctuation: let Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves stand as the archetype. It is telling that the subtitle to Truss’s work is ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ – if ever a signal of the sheer reactionary nature of this type of book were needed, then here we have it. Small armies of conservatives – the type that write letters to the council to moan about the bin men, and whose favourite form of conversation is the mutual complaint – scour the country intent on transforming the demise of the Great British nation by imposing on all and sundry the iron rules of genitival apostrophes. They’re fighting a losing battle.

Each generation since English became relatively standardised some time in the fifteenth century has bewailed the flagging standards of the mother tongue. And for each generation it has been bound up with matters of social status and class. Don’t know the difference between there and their? Foul commoner! Worse still – don’t know the difference between there and they’re? Are you an ILLEGAL?! In an age when the richest one per cent of the country dwarfs the motley sums of everybody else, grammar and punctuation become the linguistic equivalents of Rolex and sports cars: ‘I am superior. I am old-school Bulldog. I belong.’

Judging solely on personal experience, here are my predictions for at least three rules that will fade or change. And I say so with joy:

  • Genitival apostrophe in both singular and plural: Julia’s and couples’ (plural) will give way to Julias and couples, with the context determining the meaning in each case. The only marginal cases will be nouns ending in ‘s’.
  • You’re and your will no longer be distinguished – both will be your.
  • Their, there and they’re may well merge into one word – probably ‘there’, since that’s the one everybody knows well.

The main criterion which matters is: can it be easily understood? If it can, it’s likely that the simplest use will prevail; if not, the old rule may live on. The criterion is not correctness. Correctness is historically relative, and alters age by age. Those like Truss will be looked back on as small-time busybodies, before there forgotten forever in the oblivion of time. (That’s right, Lynne – there).