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. He was 97.
The cause was sepsis, said his son, Stephen Richards. Richards’s death – even some copy editors might disagree on the preferred possessive form of his surname, whether “Richards’s” or “Richards’ ” – was previously reported in publications including the Boston Standard and the Lincolnite of Lincolnshire.
In the universe of grammatical gadflies – a mantle many of them wear proudly – 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, 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 Richards and his son. But when the Daily Telegraph published an article about their quest, Richards said he received 500 letters from across the United Kingdom and 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 “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.
Mr. Richards and his most enthusiastic comrades set about collecting photographic evidence, which they posted on their website, of the extent of modern apostrophe abuse: a line declaring that “Diamond’s Are Forever,” a handwritten store sign advertising “LOT’S MORE TOY’S INSIDE” and a newsstand where readers could find “NEW’S AND MAGAZINES.” They discovered a body art salon that announced itself as offering “TATTOO’S,” a concerning error for an establishment whose primary service was the permanent inking of skin.
More irritating to Richards than the misuse of the apostrophe was its omission, the careless way in which the little squiggle was so often tossed to the wind. He was particularly dismayed when several English towns, ostensibly to facilitate the use of GPS devices, eliminated apostrophes from the official names of streets and other landmarks, producing such abominations as “St. Pauls Square.”
Another disappointment came when the venerable bookseller Waterstone’s became Waterstones. If “McDonald’s can get it right, then why can’t Waterstones?” he told the Telegraph. “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.”
Punctilious as 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.
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.”
For all the society’s efforts, misuse of the apostrophe proliferated, especially as texting became a primary form of communication and punctuation increasingly went the way of capitalization.
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 in an interview.
“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, 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. In an interview, 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.
Even Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin, according to Merriam-Webster, at times used the apostrophe “willy-nilly.”
Such historical curiosities were of little consolation to Richards. “It was inevitable,” he told the Scottish Daily Mail. “The apostrophe is dying.” He had perhaps first detected its death rattle when he suggested to a restaurateur the removal of the apostrophe in a sign advertising the sale of “coffee’s.”
“I said very politely, ‘It’s not needed. It’s a plural,’ ” Richards recalled. “But the man said: ‘I think it looks better with an apostrophe.’ And what can you say to that?”
John Belton Richards was born in London on Sept. 17, 1923. His father was employed by the post office and his mother at a store.
Richards worked at a series of newspapers in London and southeast England, retiring from the West Sussex Gazette in 1988.
His marriage to Helene Roth ended in divorce. Besides their son, of London, survivors include a daughter, Katherine Richards of Brighton, England; and a grandson.
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 – and in 2015, he was featured in a calendar printed by the Dull Men’s Club of Britain. (The model for another month showed off his collection of orange traffic cones.)
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.”
Confronted with such arguments, Richards trotted out a counterexample.
“Just take the sign outside a block of flats,” he once told Slate magazine. “Residents’ refuse to be placed in bins. Remove the apostrophe and you see a very different notice.”
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,” Richards told The Washington Post. “I don’t like any attempt to diminish it.”