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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
I attended school in France for a while when I was about 16 and managed to make plenty of time to stroll around the old city of Blois (look it up; it’s in the Loire district) by skipping a few classes and taking my schoolbooks down to a park or riverbank.
It was on one such amble that I happened upon a little place in a narrow street full of clothiers, bistros and bookshops and was stopped in my tracks by the sight of an enormous shop sign advertising quite specifically what lay within.
“Jean’s and Boot’s,” the sign read.
As you can imagine, I was horrified, and I don’t mean by the idea that French people might wear American Western clothes, which is alarming enough, but that someone had paid money for a large sign that bore such glaring errors.
I was confident that the shop didn’t belong to people called Jean and Boot, which might have made more sense despite Boot not being a common name, because the little business with the big sign appeared only to sell jeans and boots. I was left, therefore, with the sole conclusion remaining, namely that the sign maker and the business owners had been completely comfortable with plurals requiring apostrophes.
The French don’t use apostrophes in their plurals. I can’t imagine why they’d think the English would. Even the Germans don’t do it. In fact, there’s no precedent for sprinkling apostrophes after nouns to create plurals unless there’s a possessive involved.
Jeans is already plural, anyway. You don’t put on just one jean, do you? You might just put on one boot, but then you’d look silly if you didn’t follow up with the other.
Not half as silly as opening a business with two enormous mistakes like those.
Now, I know the power of advertising exercises itself in many ways, and I’ll be the first to admit that the Jean’s and Boot’s shop in downtown Blois has stuck in my memory for more than 40 years, which means the sign was certainly effective (I honestly don’t remember the names of any bookshops or bistros I regularly frequented in that town), but I’m still positive that it has done so for entirely the wrong reason.
Since that day, I’ve been infected with an annoying tic that prompts me to react negatively whenever I see a sign with bad grammar or punctuation.
It’s not that I think bad English is particularly evil, but that if someone has gone to the trouble to make a sign, it should be done to the best of their linguistic ability.
Just the other day I was seriously puzzled by a sign advertising “Taco’s and Gorditas,” because someone clearly couldn’t decide how the apostrophe should be used (it shouldn’t), and compromised by using just one.
As though that makes sense in any world.
Look, I know that teachers in all our schools have a jolly hard time fitting all that knowledge into their students’ heads in just twelve or thirteen years, and I completely understand that some retention skills need to be reinforced, but I am sorely disappointed that adults who appear able to operate a business should be so desperately lacking in basic language skills that they’d put an apostrophe in a plural. Furthermore, I’m more than a little angry that no one bothered to advise them of the error at the time or immediately thereafter.
We’ve all had our typos and language blunders. I write or edit more than ten thousand words a week, on average. It’s likely to happen. It will be an oversight if it does. I feel awful about it later and do my best to correct it whenever possible (not easy after a newspaper has been printed), and I will remember it and watch out for it in future. It’s not alright for an editor to make the same mistake twice. That’s just carelessness.
I also feel awful about pointing out mistakes to business owners, but I’ve done it before, politely, and I’ll do it again.
It’s all I can do to calm the tic.