He’s Coming to Take You Away, Ha-Haaa!
There’s nothing like a semi-colon or comma in the wrong place to make some people’s blood boil. Never more true than in the case of a man in the English city of Bristol who became known as the Apostrophiser.
He’s the self-styled grammar vigilante who spent almost a decade tidying up the punctuation on store fronts and street signs.
His identity’s never been revealed, but he was known to creep around in the dead of night on the lookout for offending apostrophes. Armed with a long-handled homemade device and stepladder, he reached the highest signs to add in, or erase, any offending punctuation marks.
One of the signs which really rankled him was above a nail shop which bore the name, “Amys Nail’s.” In a secret interview, the Apostrophiser explained, “It was so loud and in your face. I just couldn’t abide it. It grates.”
He also managed to sort out “Cambridge Motor’s,” even receiving a ‘thank you’ from the owners for his efforts.
You might well be right in thinking that the actions of our Hyphen Hero were illegal. Perish the thought. His defense was unapologetic, “I’m sticking on a bit of sticky-back plastic. It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong.”
It's About the Genes
The antics in Bristol are extreme, but there may be more going on than we think in the brains of those who go round correcting other people’s grammar. Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.
We know there’s a FOXP2 gene which could be behind lots of grammatical issues people grapple with. These include difficulties making complex sentences or constantly deploying the passive voice.
Well, wait for it. There’s now evidence that a gene variant, the FOXP2.1, could cause us to become obsessed with correcting other people’s grammar. (Or, should that be correcting the grammar of other people?) And, btw, I’m right to put the question mark before the bracket in this instance, although I did have to check.
It’s not a far cry from the types of episodes caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Those most affected can take some comfort from the researchers involved. They concluded the compulsion to fixate on grammatical complexities is “more socially acceptable than repetitive hand washing, the incessant touching of doorknobs or refusing to step on sidewalk cracks.”
Hyphen and Comma Wars
So let’s dig a little deeper into our punctuation pals. Officially there are fourteen of these little suckers in English, from commas to colons. Some have caused huge controversy with the humble hyphen almost sparking a war in Europe.
Czech and Slovak politicians had long been embroiled in what became known as the Hyphen War. In the final years of Czechoslovakia back in the early ‘90s, things came to a head.
To cut a long story short, the Slovaks wanted the same star billing in the country’s name. Nothing less than Czecho-Slovakia was going to do. In the end, the issue was resolved when the two equals peacefully went their separate ways and two republics were created.
There are few punctuation issues that ruffle more feathers than that surrounding the Oxford comma. To be or not to be, that really is the question.
It’s been a controversial, divisive, and painful saga. Or, should that be, “It’s been a controversial, divisive and painful saga?” You tell me, or, on second thoughts, please don’t.
New Kids on the Block
There may be only fourteen official punctuation marks, but punctuation imposters are creeping in. Be alarmed, be very alarmed because one of them, the interrobang, looks to be here to stay.
For the purists out there, this exclamation/question mark hybrid is nothing short of sacrilege. Its very presence has cheapened punctuation stock value.
For others, the interrobang is a refreshing, clever combo. If you’re even at all dramatic, you’re likely to crave using it at least once a day. One student at Newcastle University in the UK agrees.
Along with others, she was recently asked to give her thoughts about her punctuation favorite. Here’s a sample of what she and a few of her peers had to say:
Isn’t the Interrobang the Ultimate Punctuation Mark‽
It’s bold. Observe as the supple curve of a ‘?’ juxtaposes the jutting confidence of a ‘!’. An elegant combination of two splendid punctuation marks, the interrobang helps you through written situations where you want to express excitement!! but also maybe hesitation??
Favorite Traditional Punctuation Marks
The Best Punctuation Mark Has to Be the Semi-colon.
I dare not think of any better way to separate my flamboyant shopping list. Not only does the semi-colon hold such a necessary purpose when writing, it is a beauty to hand-write itself. It’s like two-in-one; a full stop and a comma. The satisfaction I get after using a semi-colon is next to none!
Ellipsis: the Sexiest of the Punctuation Marks
Flirtatious and alluring, the ellipsis leaves you wanting… These three dots say so much by saying nothing at all. A very […] omission. A charged silence. A pensive… pause. Leave it to the imagination, says the ellipsis. There’s nothing pretentious here, no finality or !!! drama — brevity or ??? interrogation. Just a little moment to sit and wonder what could have been. Or what will be…
The humble comma is an unlikely candidate for the greatest punctuation mark, or so you may think.
Which other, however, can render the subtle rhythms of speech with such elegance, such grace? That little flick can make the clumsiest list flow smoothly, or break up overlong sentences with a mysterious pause, like so. Always charged with the promise of another clause, the comma brings hope where other, inferior punctuation marks (., !, ?, etc.) bring misery.
What these students have done is bring to life a bunch of innocent dots and dashes. They’ve used humor to remind us that being pedantic can sometimes mean we overlook the artistic impact punctuation can have.
Go forth, I say, free yourselves up by scattering these marks far and wide. And, take a tip from the Spanish. ¡If a punctuation mark’s worth using once, it‘s worth using twice!
This article was written by Rutger Thiellier, Executive Creative Director, New York
I’m excited to announce that our Senior Designer, Katie Dorrian, is going to put together next month’s article. She’ll be revealing the secrets behind the magical shape of the triangle.