“When I first set it up I would get about 40 emails or letters a week from people all over the world,” Richards told the BBC on Friday. “But then two years ago it started to tail off and nowadays I hardly get anything.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richards previously worked as a copy editor. For years, he was bedeviled by public messages that lacked necessary apostrophes or added gratuitous ones. In 2001, after retiring from his job at a newspaper in eastern England, he founded the Apostrophe Protection Society “with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark,” as the group’s website puts it.
To kick off his campaign, Richards created a form letter that could be customized and sent to offending businesses, alerting them to their misdeeds. “Dear Sir or Madam,” it began. “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.”
Initially, the society counted just two members: Richards and his son, Stephen. The response to the form letters was lackluster, and one butcher summed up the prevailing ethos when he told the New York Times, “Sounds to me like this man wants a bleeding job.” Richards told the paper that in its first few weeks of existence, the group claimed only one victory, which was getting a local library to correct its sign for “CD’s.”
But after the Daily Telegraph published an article about his quixotic crusade, Richards developed a small but devoted following. Several hundred people signed up to join the Apostrophe Protection Society, he told the Times in 2001, and others sent letters of support or unsolicited donations of cash.
Many were waging their own ineffectual campaigns against grammatical atrocities, and one man even admitted to carrying around tape and printed-out apostrophes to correct signs on the fly. A seventh-grade English teacher in America who grew apoplectic at the sight of errors on billboards founded her own offshoot, the Apostrophe Protection Society of Southwest Montana.
“Why did the Apostrophe Protection Society not have a militant wing?” grammarian Lynne Truss wrote in her 2004 bestseller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” “Could I start one? Where do you get balaclavas?”
After achieving some mild level of celebrity — he was once featured as “Mr. October” in a calendar that purported to celebrate the most boring men in Britain — Richards began taking on larger targets. He unsuccessfully protested retailers like Harrods, Selfridges and Waterstones that dropped apostrophes from their names, as well as government bodies that followed suit.
In 2013, Richards and the Apostrophe Protection Society scored a major coup when the Mid Devon District Council reversed its decision to ban apostrophes from all street signs. The government body had claimed that GPS devices would melt down when confronted by the punctuation mark, an argument that Richards deemed “appalling.”
“It set a bad example for local children who were being taught about apostrophes in local schools,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
For the most part, though, officials tended to ignore the society’s complaints, saying that they had more pressing matters to deal with than a missing apostrophe here or there. And experts in language and cognition concurred, pointing out that a misplaced apostrophe was unlikely to confuse anybody, and, in fact, apostrophes could likely be eliminated from written English altogether with no ill effect.
But for years, Richards remained dedicated to defending the humble punctuation mark’s honor.
“People do tend to look on me as a little bit pedantic but I don’t mind — I think we need pedants,” he told the Sunday Express in 2012. “The apostrophe is a vital piece of punctuation and grammar. To do without it would be confusing, as well as inelegant."
Though his days of lobbying on behalf of the apostrophe are over, Richards wrote last month that he plans to keep the society’s website up “for reference and interest.” In addition to a defunct message board and helpful guidelines about the correct use of apostrophes, it hosts a hall of fame of sorts, dedicated to some of the most egregious offenders. Over the years, fans have submitted examples such a cafe advertising “light bite’s,” a warehouse offering storage for “boat’s” and “car’s,” and a restaurant selling “snow pea’s.”
And Richards told the BBC that he might once again return to campaigning, though this time for a different cause.
“The use of the comma is appalling,” he said. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”