Curbing apostrophic pollution a losing battle

While most of us are aware of the good work done by the Dunedin-based National Poisons Centre, another Dunedin service carries out its vital function almost anonymously. It's the National Apostrophe Centre (NAC) which is housed in the English department at the University of Otago.

Its important work is summarised in the annual report to the Minister of Cultural Affairs and it makes interesting reading:

Dear Minister

Below is this year's report.
National Apostrophe Centre Annual Report, 2012

Introduction: It is nine years since Ms Truss wrote the excellent and popular plea for correct punctuation (Eats, Shoots and Leaves). Sadly, its influence is waning. Far too many New Zealanders continue to mis-use the apostrophe and in the 12 months under review the Centre has had to deal with 4567 ''apostrophe events'' - a disturbing 14% increase since our last report, but fortunately, with no fatalities.

1. Greengrocers' Division. This division is fully stretched. Dangerous practices have become almost universal in the grocery world and supermarkets are now as guilty of transgressions as the much-maligned corner store. Our inspectors are almost persuaded that ''tomato's'' and ''potatoe's'' should be taken off the proscribed list and admitted as correct practice. The decision on that matter, of course, rests with the minister. ''Vegie's'' continues to be the most common contribution to punctuation pollution.

2. Menu Division. The proliferation of small restaurants has resulted in a 50% rise in the workload for this division and staffing levels will have to be adjusted accordingly. The seriousness of the problem in this area is illustrated by the fact that 8 out of 10 restaurants believe that ''menu's'' is the correct plural form for the bill of fare. Within the menus themselves, apostrophes are scattered like confetti and it is almost impossible for our inspectors to grant approval to more than two or three percent of the samples checked. (The Senior Inspector Apostrophes (Menus) has suggested an entirely new department be formed to deal with the general desecration of the English language perpetrated by the writers of menus).

3. Sign-writing Division. The heavy workload continues and staff are having to take stress leave. They are constantly being bombarded with the word ''signage'' from people within the sign-writing industry. As well, increasingly efficient technology is making it much easier to reproduce the most offensive sign-writing practices. For every apostrophe outbreak which is brought under control we notice a dozen new abuses. The new department recommended in the previous section would also work to stamp out sign-writing abominations like ''thru'', ''nite'' and the use of ''on'' in phrases like ''Motel On High''.

4. Legislation. The paper prepared by the Crown Law Office has proposed that, as the apostrophe is so little understood, legislation be introduced to outlaw it altogether, or at least have apostrophes stored in locked cabinets and available only to those with a certificate of proficiency in apostrophe use. The sad fact is that the apostrophe has already disappeared in many public places, ''Ladies toilets'' and ''Childrens playground'' being common examples. Speight's and Gregg's are to be commended for voluntarily retaining their apostrophe when many other firms like the original Farmers' Trading Company have consigned their apostrophe to oblivion. Inserting an apostrophe for decades (1920's and so on) has become almost universal. Abuses are too widespread to be dealt with by legislation. We prefer an education programme

5. The Apostrophe Education programme would entail the development of a child-friendly cartoon character called Curly, shaped a little like an apostrophe with large head and a slim body, who would have songs and stories to tell the children about his adventures as an apostrophe.

''Being left out'' and ''Being where I don't want to be'' would be the themes of his message. Curly would tour the country visiting schools and greengrocers. Rappers would be commissioned to produce a hit with the apostrophe message.

6. Prosecution. Although we prefer public education to taking offenders to court there have been several serious cases during the year which have resulted in heavy fines.

One prosecution, taken against a printing firm in Wellington, was the result of the discovery of hundreds of apostrophes stored insecurely in an old golden treacle tin. The potential for damage was horrendous.

7. Staffing. The numerous breakdowns in health suffered this year have been mentioned. A number of our best workers have taken to drink. From now on the intention is to recruit only experienced subeditors from the newspaper industry. Not only do they know apostrophe use intimately but many have already taken to drink without their performance being adversely affected. I trust this report meets with the minister's approval.

Your's sincer ... oops,
Yours sincerely
D'Arcy O'Meaghan
National Apostrophe Centre.

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