Grammar can cause problems when we’re writing.

Some people still like to refer to arcane rules that were taught to them in the dim and distant past. They refuse to understand that usage of language changes over time. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to excuse poor use of language or ignoring grammar rules. Rules are there for a reason. But sometimes we use them to tie ourselves in knots.)

So, what are the rules when we’re trying to work out how to communicate?

Well, that depends.

There are lots of books to reference when checking how to use grammar.

One area that constantly seems to infuriate people is apostrophes.

Generally they’re fairly simple to use (if you write for a living).

But then you get the odd thing that causes consternation.

Laura Waddell spotted a really badly-placed apostrophe on a sign in her local Waitrose, so she popped it up on Twitter.

It looked like this:

Apostrophes Twitter 1

Which is pretty poor.

It reminded me of a traffic sign where I live that had a misplaced apostrophe on it. So I shared it on Laura’s post:

Apostrophes Twitter 2

I thought the sign was incorrect and didn’t need the apostrophe.

95% of people who saw it on Twitter laughed and enjoyed the joke.

Apostrophes Twitter 3

However, couple of people said they thought the sign did need the apostrophe.

So I got out my Chicago Manual of Style, The Economist Style Guide and Fowler’s Modern English Usage and had a look. I couldn’t find any reference to using apostrophes in plurals of initialisms. Seems (from a pretty deep Google search) that it was taught in schools a long time ago. However, I’m no spring chicken and I don’t ever remember it being mentioned at school.

Which leads me on to the fact that language evolves. If you read something from many years ago the language used can seem odd. (Same thing happens if you read the Daily Mail – you start thinking it’s 1917.) I think we need to move with changing usage and adapt how we write.

Even though some people on Twitter had a meltdown about the fact that the sign is (supposedly) correct with an apostrophe, I’d still argue that it’s wrong.

The purpose of the sign is to communicate clearly and simply that HGVs should turn right. In most people’s eyes that means no apostrophe. There’s no misunderstanding if you omit the apostrophe. So let’s ask it to do one.

In amongst all the debate, I did love Banana Armour’s response:

Apostrophes twitter 4

I guess what I’m saying is that a grammar debate can be a bit dull. But always remember the point is to communicate.

And it’s best to do that simply, while avoiding complicated words, in a manner that your reader is comfortable with.

The Economist has a fantastic style guide. It gives insights and solutions to things few people would give time to thinking about. And they refer the reader to George Orwell’s six rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language). The sixth of which reads:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To my mind, using an apostrophe in the HGV sign is just plain wrong. To use Orwell’s phrase, it seems barbarous to me. It seems to go against the commonly-held understanding of how apostrophes work. And I’d go further to argue that if professional writers are disagreeing over this, then we need to do something to simplify usage before we all disappear up our own backsides.

Say no to apostrophes for HGVs.

P.S. I do get that it’s just a sign and regardless of the position of the apostrophe HGV drivers will most likely ignore it anyway.

apostrophe

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