A couple of months ago I set out to do a grammar grouse blog, but Jacob Rees-Mogg got in the way (let’s face it, he does that, a lot). So now, in the dark days of November, it seems a good moment to try again… and this time it’s Jeremy Vine who’s got me going. Not because I disagree with him. On the contrary, he put out a tweet recently that was music to my ears (or eyes? Eek, that doesn’t work either), all about our dear old friend, the apostrophe:
Grammar question. I have friends whose surname is Hobbs. I went to a function celebrating their anniversary. I have just emailed a friend I ran into there, and said it was “great to see you again at the Hobbses’ party.” Am I exactly correct in the way I wrote their surname?
YES, I replied, yes yes yes. Scrolling down, I realised I was pretty much the only one out of hundreds of replies. Everyone else was absolutely certain it should be the Hobbs’ or the Hobb’s party. So a party given either by a couple called Mr and Mrs Hobb, or a thing called a Hobb (short for a hobbit? Yes that, was suggested too).
I know, I should get out more. So perhaps should Jeremy Vine. That way perhaps we’d both be better at Keeping up with the Joneses. Oh sorry, should that be, Keeping Up with the Jones? What is a Jone, then? If we don’t allow names ending in ‘s’ to have their own plural form, the meaning isn’t clear. The same goes for the possessive apostrophe, whether singular or plural; its function is to show that something either belongs to somebody, or is named after them. People in Britain have had no trouble understanding this for the last few centuries; now, apparently, we can’t cope anymore and councils all over the country have done away with the apostrophe altogether. Five years ago, the ire of local residents armed with marker pens forced Cambridge City Council to cave in over its decision to abolish apostrophes from road signs. (It was thought that apostrophes can confuse emergency services – a calumny hotly denied by the emergency services themselves. Just because you’re a police/fire officer or paramedic doesn’t mean you didn’t go to school.)
Grammar and the use of English change over the years, I know. But speech patterns don’t. Have you tried saying, ‘this is Jane Morris book’? Or, ‘the Harris are coming to tea’? You can’t. The person you’re talking to will hear ‘this is Jane Morey’s book’ and ‘the Harrys (Prince and Potter?) are coming to tea.’ So why have one rule for the spoken word – which at least makes the meaning clear – and a different one for when the word is written down?
Alas, judging by these signs, the battle is pretty much lost, except for the odd London underground station still holding strong.
And I bet everyone going for treatment at one of London’s most famous hospitals will refer to it as St Thomas’s, whatever it may call itself.
Right, that was arguably my most nerdish post ever. And if you think I’m overreacting to a tinsy-winsy point of grammar, here’s a glorious recent tweet from that Giant of the Twittery and Literary world, Philip Ardagh, replying to a tweet that read:
‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog stood by the bush outside the tent? #GBBO’:
A dog STOOD’? ‘STOOD’?! It should be: ‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog STANDING by the bush…’ you bunch of halfwits. You should be HORSE-WHIPPED, I say. HORSEWHIPPED. Sob.’
Wildly out of proportion but Philip, I know what you mean.
(From an item first published on Authors Electric Blog)