John Richards: “A Bulwark for the Apostrophe Against Grammatical Barbarians”

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “John Richards, bulwark for the apostrophe against grammatical ‘barbarians.’ dies at 97”:

John Richards, a British newspaperman who attracted a flurry of international attention when he founded and later resignedly disbanded the Apostrophe Protection Society, a self-styled bulwark against the “barbarians” laying waste to a humble yet essential element of the English language, died March 30 at a hospital in Boston, a town in Lincolnshire, England….

In the universe of grammatical gadflies — a mantle many of them wear proudly — Mr. Richards represented a particularly committed species. A retired journalist, he spent 35 years working for regional newspapers in England, mainly as a reporter. But he also did a stint as a copy editor, purging copy of misspellings, grammatical slip-ups and errors of usage.

Even the most charitable editor can change “flaunt” to “flout” and “pour over” to “pore over” only so many times before exasperation sets in. By the end of his career, Mr. Richards was “fed up with correcting reporters’ copy” and told the Wall Street Journal that he “decided to do something” about a common and especially vexing category of error.

In 2001, he founded the Apostrophe Protection Society. The name of his association reflected his view of the tiny punctuation mark as a “poor defenseless creature,” its very existence in danger as technology increasingly encouraged speed over grammatical precision and the English-speaking population sank, in the view of the most curmudgeonly sticklers, into a disgraceful form of semi-literacy.

At first, the society’s ranks consisted of Mr. Richards and his son. But when the Daily Telegraph published an article about their quest, Mr. Richards said he received 500 letters from around the world — including from the United States, the erstwhile colonies where, according to many Britons, the English language had been assailed nearly beyond recognition.

These missives came from grammarians who needed no reminding of the proper uses of the apostrophe: to indicate possession, as in “Mr. Richards’s life’s purpose,” or to stand in for letters omitted in the contraction of words such as “could not,” as in, “He just couldn’t take it anymore.” Nor did they need to be admonished that the apostrophe should not be used to make a singular noun plural….

Punctilious as Mr. Richards may have been, he told the New York Times that there were many grammarians more “militant” than he. One self-described nocturnal “vigilante” traipsed across Bristol, England, correcting errant apostrophes on street signs and in store windows under the cloak of darkness.

Mr. Richards preferred a more peaceable letter-writing campaign.

“Dear Sir or Madam,” began his group’s standard notice. “Because 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.”

“We would like to emphasise that we do not intend any criticism,” the letter added, “but are just reminding you of correct usage should you wish to put right the mistake.”…

The Internet “just does not understand the apostrophe,” Mary Norris, a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker magazine and the author of books including “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” said.

“There’s a tendency to take out anything that looks ‘extra’ or is a little bit of a refinement, anything that can be done without,” she added. “It makes me a little bit sad. A lot of the beauty is in those details. They show that you care.”

In 2019, Mr. Richards announced — “with regret” — the shuttering of the Apostrophe Protection Society. He was 96 and was “cutting back.” Furthermore, he conceded, “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Mignon Fogarty, host of the “Grammar Girl” podcast and the author of several books on language, takes a more sanguine view. She noted that in the roughly five centuries since the apostrophe was introduced, no consistent set of rules has governed its use. As recently as several decades ago, style mavens reversed the long-standing practice of using an apostrophe when referring to a decade (e.g., “the 1950’s”); today, “the 1950s,” with no apostrophe, is preferred….

John Belton Richards was born in London on Sept. 17, 1923. He worked at a series of newspapers in London and southeast England, retiring from the West Sussex Gazette in 1988….

Mr. Richards’s efforts in behalf of the apostrophe did not go without recognition. In 2001, he received the Ig Nobel Prize for literature — bestowed at Harvard University by the satirical journal the Annals of Improbable Research….

Hand-wringing discussions about the demise of the apostrophe prompted some debaters to argue that, as a punctuation mark, it had never mattered much, anyway. The apostrophe, they contended, packed little to no meaning that was not already obvious in the context of a sentence. By comparison, a comma and a colon could transform the old warhorse of grammar pedantry from, “A woman, without her man, is nothing,” into, “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”…

In the end, he said he didn’t mind if people saw him as a scold.

“I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization,” Mr. Richards told The Washington Post. “I don’t like any attempt to diminish it.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

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