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Rick Steelhammer: Retired editor surrenders in decades-long war on apostrophe abuse

For newspaper copy editor John Richards, the apostrophe has always been more than an elevated comma.

After encountering and correcting endless examples of improper apostrophe use by reporters, Richards, long into retirement, kept up the fight to use the small but meaningful punctuation mark in the manner prescribed by grammarians.

Richards may have made headway with the generations of journalists he worked with in his English hometown by blue-penciling them into into a basic understanding of proper apostrophe use. But by the time he retired and returned to civilian life, there were abundant indications that the apostrophe remained appallingly misunderstood and misapplied by the non-edited public.

Apostrophes appeared willy-nilly on signs, menus, billboards and posters to indicate — often incorrectly — noun plurality or possession. Sometimes the pint-size punctuation marks were omitted where they should have been applied.

Rather than rolling his eyes and moving on after encountering menus listing “burger’s,” signs directing patrons to the “ladie’s” room or vendor posters attracting music-loving buyers to “CD’s,” Richards decided to do what he could to curb a rising tide of apostrophe abuse. In 2001, at age 78, he formed the Apostrophe Protection Society, which at first consisted mainly of himself and a like-minded son.

After coming across instances of apostrophe abuse, they would send a form letter to the offender, pointing out that “since there seems to be some doubt about the use of the apostrophe, we are taking the liberty of drawing your attention to an incorrect use.”

Response to the the letters was mixed, but apostrophe appreciators from across the world began to take note of the Richards’ effort, with hundreds joining the APS within its first year.

Despite the society’s work in the years that followed, Richards announced on Dec. 1 that he was closing the APS and would soon deactivate its website due to his discouragement at seeing “the problem speeding up over time,” he told British newspaper the Independent.

“Fewer organizations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language,” he wrote in a note appearing on the society’s website. “We and our many supporters worldwide have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.”

While the battle to preserve the apostrophe may not have ended in victory, there are other punctuation-related windmills at which to tilt. Now 96, Richards said in a BBC interview that he may have retained enough energy and outrage to launch a campaign to conserve the comma.

“The use of the comma has become appalling,” he said. “When I read some newspaper websites, they just don’t understand what it is supposed to be used for.”

But before suiting up for that battle, Richards may discover there are enough apostrophe-admiring English speakers in the world to keep fighting the good fight for what British newsman Harry Mount called “the device that does so much with so little ink to point a sentence in the right direction.”

After word got out that Richards had surrendered to the apostrophe-challenged, the society’s website experienced a sixfold increase in traffic, exceeding its server’s bandwidth and forcing its webmaster to perform maintenance.

Due to the spike in interest, the APS website is not closing down, and will reopen in early 2020, according to an announcement appearing Friday on its temporary site.

Maybe a new wave of grammar nerds will have the energy to address my pet peeve — incorrectly using “lead,” pronounced like the soft, heavy, pencil-filling mineral of the same spelling, instead of “led” for the past tense of “lead,” as in I will lead the hike.

I know. Get a life, right?

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Funerals for Sunday, January 19, 2020

Atkins Sr., Dennis - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Crislip, Edna - 2 p.m., Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.

Driggs Sr., Phillip - 4 p.m., St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston.

Sigmon, Steven - 4 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.