Stephen Fry’s got it wrong

So blogging’s taken a back seat  since I “fell” pregnant (a delightfully quaint phrase). My apologies. But I return to the keyboard this week to discuss pedantry.

I’m sure you’ve seen the fuss this week over Waterstone’s and their decision to remove the apostrophe from their name – for reasons of digital literacy or some such nonsense. Defenders of this policy have pointed out that,  as Tim Waterstone no longer owns the shop, then the possessive use of the apostrophe is irrelevant. Sounds reasonable, yes? Well, no. If this was the case then you’d get rid of the ‘s’ as well. James Daunt knows this, as his chain of bookshops is called Daunt books rather than Daunt’s books or Daunts books.

On losing this argument, the ‘Waterstones’ defenders have reverted to criticising my pedantry.

One of them, a current Waterstone’s employee, has sent me a blog post by Stephen Fry on the subject. Among a lot of unedited waffle and digressions (I say this with the greatest respect for the man who I find very funny and usually erudite), Fry’s main point is that pedantry is the last resort of joyless haters of language (I’m paraphrasing somewhat but you get the point). He points out that surely we should all just revel in language and its quirks.

But I disagree. My pedantry isn’t because I dislike language but precisely the opposite. My first thought, on reading this, was to refer to Derek K. Miller, a writer who died last year and posted a series of heartbreaking blogs before his death, who said:

“Written language might be our greatest achievement. Without it we would have no Shakespeare, of course, but also no Great Wall of China, no theory of natural selection, no quantum mechanics, no constitutional democracy, no television, no antibiotics and no footprints on the moon. No internet either. I think a tool that powerful should be used properly.”

I doubt Miller would have appreciated being called a joyless hater of language either.

What I’m actually saying is that of course language has to evolve and change, and that we should glory in that – to the point where it stops making sense. I’m the first person to revel in a word just because of the way it sounds. I love quirks in words, finding out their roots and meanings and I value their proper use. It’s the people who I encounter (everyday at work and elsewhere) who don’t understand my pedantry, who don’t see the problem with writing “banana’s” or “your” when they mean “you’re” that dislike language. They’ve never been shown or taught the value in it, the beauty of it, the power of it. I cannot imagine they’ve ever, as I have, had to put down a book because they’ve got tears in their eyes at the phrasing in it – for the beauty of it, or for the way a phrase sounds in your mouth. They’re the haters of language, the ones who won’t defend it, not me.

That’s not to say that all pedants feel like this – I’m aware that in defending pedantry I set myself up with a bunch of Telegraph letter writers who actively fight change in all things. I guess they are the ones that Fry is really talking about and they are a dried up bunch of joyless souls, hoarding tungsten lightbulbs and tutting at split infinitives. But that’s not me.

Nevertheless, I stand with them on apostrophe defence – it isn’t actually that difficult to use. I’m not walking into an argument about failing standards in schools but really – it ISN’T that difficult to use. It does, however, change the meaning of words, which is, of course, why it’s still in use. And it should be celebrated, alongside everything that makes the English language glorious – the OED, Scrabble, the word ‘haberdashery’, the King James Bible and many other things, a list that once included Waterstone’s booksellers but of course, cannot any more.

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