For nearly two decades, John Richards dedicated his life to protecting an endangered species: the correctly placed apostrophe.
As the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, he waged war against signs advertising “ladies fashions” or claiming that “Diamond’s are forever.” But last month, the 96-year-old admitted defeat.
“The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” Richards wrote on the Apostrophe Protection Society’s website. Given the lack of interest in correct apostrophe usage and his own advancing age, Richards recently announced that he is shutting down the group.
“When I first set it up I would get about 40 e-mails or letters a week from people all over the world,” Richards told the BBC. “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: “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. 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 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.
“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 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.”