Pedantry runs in my family. My mother, my siblings and I often used to come home with examples of painfully incorrect English usage. It got to the point where we were correcting things (usually to ourselves) everywhere we went, and so often that we formed the Society of English Pedants. Everyone is a member. Every member of my family, I mean.
So I am pedant, and that means I’m frustrated, because English is being butchered left, right and centre. My relatives and I know we are not the only ones though. There are others like us out there, fighting the decline of proper punctuation use; enough for me to hold out hope that Australians may one day be competent users of English grammar.
I used to work at a certain very popular electronics store, a chain with a yellow and black logo. It, like many—okay, let’s be honest: like most—other stores, is a victim of the grocer’s apostrophe. It sells TV’s, CD’s and DVD’s. I was angry about its punctuation-gone-mad signage and advertising and how this corruption had spread to new media, recruiting MP3’s and iPod’s and leeching onto games and programs for PC’s, PS2’s and PS3’s.
That is, until one day when my sister, a fellow pedant, used the term CD’s in an e-mail; and she didn’t admit her mistake, she defended it! CD is an abbreviation for compact disk, she argued, and because the fundamental principle of the apostrophe is that it is used to indicate possession or omitted letters, it is acceptable to use an apostrophe in CD’s to replace the missing letters in the contracted word disks.
Makes sense, I thought. It’s technically correct, it doesn’t cause confusion and it doesn’t look so bad anyway. Part of surviving as a pedant is that you have to accept when you’re wrong. You have to accept that the purpose of language is that people will understand each other. So it doesn’t matter if language use breaks the rules of grammar if everyone still understands that language use.
The problem is, though, that even if the examples above aren’t actually genuine demonstrations of the grocer’s apostrophe, they could well be what’s causing it. It’s not a big step from CD’s to camera’s and headphone’s and then to menu’s and carol’s by candlelight. I was walking through a shopping centre just last week and saw an advertisement for a competition to win one of three shopping spree’s. This, you see, is where things start getting unnecessarily complicated. Something is obviously very wrong with public use of English grammar.
Of course, this isn’t just about apostrophes. This is about errant commas and quadruple exclamation marks and collective nouns and (gasp!) hyphens. The problem goes both ways: sometimes these days there is punctuation where there shouldn’t be and sometimes none where there should be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not obsessive. I’m not campaigning for excessive use of hyphens; that would be counter-productive. I accept and make concessions where meaning and fluency will be the same with or without a hyphen (or an apostrophe, like in CD’s).
I’m just calling for the eradication of punctuation habits that confuse rules for no reason and trip up unwary readers. I’m calling for the return of punctuation marks that were once accepted and which aided comprehension and prevented ambiguity, like hyphens for numbers (don’t you remember writing out twenty-two and forty-five in primary school?). It makes no sense to abandon things like hyphens in two-word adjectives (like two-word): they make a sentence run faster because you aren’t drawn to focus on each separate word.
It’s time for the grammar geeks of the world to unite. I envisage stake-outs at the houses of producers of movies like Rabbit Proof Fence (Rabbit-Proof Fence), 24 Hour Photo (24-Hour Photo) and The 40 Year Old Virgin (The 40-year-old Virgin). We could start a petition for a hyphen in the 40 Hour Famine; and inform the government that it sounds derogatory when we’re told that ‘even numbered houses can water their gardens every second day’ in Stage 3 Water Restrictions.
It all starts here. ‘A Pedant’s Pet Peeves’, in issues to come, will embark on a public education program of English grammar. Why does this matter to you? Because you are a writer; and every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing.
To be a good writer, you have to write so that others can understand your writing. The best way to do that is to learn the rules. Grammar is not just about rules, though. It is a formula you can use to understand how your writing will be read, so that you can write the way you want to be read.
Grammar is there to help. It helps you and your reader go with the flow.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 363 (March–May 2009).