I read a news story just the other day about a self-declared “grammar vigilante” who reportedly prowls the streets of Bristol, in south-west England, correcting errant punctuation on business signs. Apparently for the past decade or so he has been venturing out late at night, wearing a coat and black hat, to surreptitiously correct sloppy grammar on many of the city’s billboards. Carrying an eight-foot-long tool he refers to as an “apostophiser,” which allows him to correct punctuation marks on elevated signs, he has rectified scores of signs, including such public abominations as “Potato’s for sale”, “Amy’s Nail’s, and Cambridge Motor’s.”
Now here’s a man after my own heart. My dear old mum always was a stickler for the English language, and ever since she drummed the intricacies of pronouns and possessive apostrophes into my brothers and me (objective case –so please, definitely not ‘my brothers and I’), I have found it difficult to completely ignore those silly little language laws. Like Churchill himself, the errant placement of a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.
I was just a kid when Alfred Hitchcock’s American horror film The Birds was first released. Before it hit the cinemas there were billboards everywhere advertising the upcoming film with the caption “The Birds is coming.” It was a really clever piece of irritating advertising that nearly drove me to distraction. After all those grammar lessons in all those English classes it just didn’t seem quite right to me. So I was ultimately relieved to see I wasn’t the only one, when Al Feldstein’s popular comic magazine Mad spoofed the movie with a billboard that read “The Birds is coming – and good grammar in advertising is went.”
I don’t know what the Grammar Vigilante would have made of Hitchcock’s cockeyed signs, but in the grammarless, un-punctuated, misspelt world of rampant SMS communication, I find it somehow reassuring to see someone is still taking some time to try to get the language right. It seems I’m not the only one. The owner of ‘Cambridge Motor’s’, now Cambridge Motors, told the BBC he was grateful for the vigilante’s clandestine work.
“I don’t mind at all,” he said. “It’s good to see people still caring about English grammar.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Chris Nyst, Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker