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OPINION | BERNADETTE KINLAW: Apostrophes really matter in this world

by Bernadette Kinlaw | May 31, 2021 at 2:22 p.m.

I'm sad to report the death of apostrophe maven John Richards. I have written about him once or twice.

He was a British newspaperman who, in his retirement, formed the valiant Apostrophe Protection Society. (Because he was older, I feel safe calling him a newspaperman and not a journalist, which seems like a more modern term.)

The Washington Post was one of the few outlets that reported his death. (As I wrote this, a friend sent me an article on Richards' death from The Wall Street Journal.)

His death made me unhappy, but reading The Post's beautiful and witty writing was entertaining (only partly because I spent most of my career as a copy editor).

Here's an excerpt:

"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."

The Apostrophe Protection Society had one guiding goal: "to preserve the correct use of this currently much-abused punctuation mark."

The society began with only two charter members: Richards and his son.

I have written about grammar pendants who use Sharpies to add missing apostrophes on public signs and menus, grammar cops in Ecuador who correct graffiti scrawls and a vigilante who fixed grammar mistakes in a New York college's sculpture garden by night.

Richards eschewed such militancy. His approach was to write civil letters to companies and stores to explain that they got it wrong. His website included many egregious signs including:

Buse's only

Employee's only (posted on an office refrigerator)

Discount Bed's

Kids shoes

Staff vacancy's

Small party's welcome (at a bar/restaurant)

Diamond's Are Forever

Its Against the Law to Smoke Here

Now Open Sunday's

Thank's for your tips

Pie's & Burgers

Where profit go's to charity (Yikes!)

Please check out the website apostrophe.org.uk. You will be amused and dismayed.

Richards' quest turned out to be starry-eyed and quixotic. Even though the society lured many devoted members and fans, Richards abandoned active participation in 2019. He was 96 and could certainly be permitted his time to rest. But his parting message was distressing: "We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!"

Next time you see an erring apostrophe, think of John Richards and his efforts.

THE CHAFING DISH

I have gone this long in life without knowing or caring what a chafing dish is. I know that if my mother ever had a chafing dish, she didn't call it that. I know I have never used the term.

Let me back up. A chafing dish, I have learned, is a serving dish that keeps food warm on a buffet. The ones on Amazon are all made of metal. Some are electric, and some are powered by what I've always called Sterno gel cans.

Before I spent much time thinking about chafing dishes (which was most of my life), I had used the adjective chafing only so often. I primarily think of a label on a shirt chafing my neck and driving me to distraction.

One particularly zealous woman explored why labels are so irritating (see arkansasonline.com/53hop). She lamented: "They can make a hamburger out of peas and cars are now driving themselves, but no one has figured out how to create a non-itchy tag?"

One company she wrote to responded: "It's U.S. trade regulation that you have to identify yourself with a brand name on the label, and by law it has to be permanently sewn on and can't be easily removed."

I also knew a kid who complained to his mother that the labels on his T-shirts really bugged him. (I guess he didn't yet know the word chafing.) His mom told him he could cut off the labels. He ended up cutting off a little square of fabric on the back of each of his shirts instead of just taking off the label. Oops.

Anyway, to get back to the subject, the definitions for chafe are broad and grumpy: to irritate and vex, to abrade, to rub so as to wear away, to make sore, to feel irritation, discontent or impatience.

Does this seem like a good word to describe something to serve food in? I'm certain that no comfort food would be allowed.

Are you dishing out chopped cactus? Dragon's breath pepper? Widower curry? (That's made with 20 infinity chilis.)

And yet the chafing dish has the genteel task of keeping food warm. It seems like it deserves a new name.

MINOR IRRITANT

A minor expression makes me chuckle. I've heard people say, "The phone rang at 5 a.m. in the morning."

That a.m. expressly means in the morning hours. Why add the in the morning?

MISTRESS

The Associated Press Stylebook weighed in on the term mistress recently:

"Don't use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later."

I thought a mistress was a woman who was having an affair with a married man. I didn't know about that financial support aspect. But lover and friend don't quite sound right.

And, hey, what do you call a man who is having an affair with a married woman?

Sources include The Washington Post, Apostrophe Protection Society, Good Housekeeping, The Associated Press Stylebook. Reach Bernadette at

[email protected]

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