The Man Who Takes Apostrophes Very Seriously

On April Fools’ Day, 2010, comedy singer “Weird Al” Yankovic uploaded a twenty-second-long video, available here, to his YouTube channel. I’m about to ruin the joke, so if you want to watch it, click now before reading on.



Okay: In the video, Weird Al is operating the camera. He pans through the checkout lanes in a grocery store, finally making his way to lane 6. That lane is labeled “15 Items or Less” in white letters on a forest green background. Weird Al places a smaller sign — white on blue — which reads “Fewer.” He attaches the small sign over the larger one, correcting the grammar; the sign now reads “15 Items or Fewer.” Weird Al then pops his head in and rolls his eyes in disapproval of how the sign originally read.

It’s a gag — for Weird Al. But for a man armed with a long stick and, perhaps, too much time on his hands, it’s a calling.

On April 3, 2016, the BBC ran this segment on an unnamed vigilante who doesn’t stop crimes — he stops grammatical errors. Late at night, working alone, this anonymous hero from the United Kingdom town of Bristol “makes punctuation marks to stick on errant signs,” in the words of the BBC reporter. Using a homemade device he calls “The Apostrophiser” — a stick with a T-shaped contraption on top to add or remove apostrophes as needed — he takes to the streets to fix the mistakes of shopkeepers.

Take, for example, Herberts Bakery & Gelateria. Below is the picture that the bakery uses on its official Facebook page, and you’ll note that it’s stylized as written above — there’s no apostrophe in “Herberts.” That’s, well, wrong.

And here’s the sign, via that BBC segment, after the man and his Apostrophiser got ahold of it:

As you can see, the sign — once the man finishes his after-hours work — has an apostrophe. It’s now grammatically correct.

Vandalism? A public service? That’s in the eye of the beholder. The mystery man has been fixing punctuation for more than a decade, but not all of those assisted are pleased with his efforts. The owner of Tux & Tails, a tailor, told the Telegraph that he’s “a little angry to be honest” that some guy added an apostrophe to the word “Gentelmans” on his sign — if the edit ends up destroying the sign, it would cost him “a few thousand pounds” to replace it.

But in at least one case –the company formerly with a sign which read “Cambridge Motor’s,” it’s a welcome change. After the grammar vigilante covered that rogue apostrophe with some yellow tape, Chris Knight, the owner of that shop, told the BBC that he’s thankful for the man’s work and that “it’s good to see people still caring about English grammar.”

Bonus fact: One group our Bristol vigilante probably isn’t a fan of? The Mid Devon Council, which is responsible for roadways and zoning about a 90-minute drive southwest of him. In 2013, the council recommended that the region “outlaw the apostrophe [on street signs] in order to avoid confusion,” per the New York Times. The rest of the town, however, didn’t really appreciate the suggestion — the BBC reported that the linguistically bankrupt proposal made some residents “shudder” — and the apostrophe ban never went into effect.

From the ArchivesComma Chameleon Law: The legal implications of an errant comma.