My Great-aunt Winifred, having passed the age at which one automatically gets in the car to drive to the shops, has built her present life around short walks and the bus, with occasional drives at the weekend with her nephew, namely me. These are occasions when she likes to deliver herself of commentaries on the state of the world, and last weekend was no exception. We had passed slowly through a small town, and my aunt, as observant as ever, drew my attention to what I had overlooked, being absorbed at the time with careful driving and errant pedestrians.
‘Nephew, you will not have noticed, but a shopkeeper there has an appallingly limited understanding of our language.’
Uh-uh, I think, here we go. Correct spelling, grammar and syntax are in the long list of her priorities for a better Australia. ‘Really?’ I offer.
‘Yes, nephew, really. He is offering Slashed Knitwear for sale. A sign says so. Why would anyone want to buy destroyed goods?’
Don’t fall into the trap here, I advise myself. But I make another error. ‘Why do you suppose the shopkeeper is a man, dear aunt?’
‘For goodness sake, nephew, no woman would want to advertise knitwear in that way. Her sign would say ‘Knitwear prices reduced’ or something like that.’
‘Not so dramatic,’ I respond, ‘and you would not have remembered it.’
I thought my reply was rather good, but she passed it by with a flourish of her arm. ‘Look, the whole town is infected by this virus. There is a ‘Disabled Toilet’. Surely it could be fixed!’
‘Dear aunt, it is plain to the ordinary person that the toilet is for the use of the disabled.’
‘Then,’ she said triumphantly, ‘it should be Disableds’ Toilet, or Toilet for the Disabled. Brevity is no defence for sloppy English!’
I thought I’d pass that by, and we were now in the country again. I saw the next sign first. ‘What do you make of this one?’ I asked.
‘Koalas Cross Here’, she intoned. ‘Well, it is highly ambiguous. One reading is that we have English-speaking koalas, who are being instructed to cross the road at this point. Another is that the local koalas are vexed and irritated. A third is that you, the driver, should be careful because one of them might be crossing the road — though I saw none.’
I nodded, but it was not long before the Inspector of Signs had found something further to criticise. ‘Falling Rocks Don’t Stop,’ she cried out. ‘Well, they don’t while they are falling, do they, but they come to rest when they reach the ground!’
I muttered something, but Aunt Winifred was on the case. ‘Now what is it we are being warned of? We were in a cutting, and on a slight corner. Why would we have wanted to stop there? Shouldn’t we rather have been warned earlier that there might be fallen rocks on the ground? Really, nephew, what are these men thinking of?’
I decided that it would not be in my best interests to propose that the sign-writer might just have been a woman. ‘I agree, aunt. I have wondered about that sign myself.’
And before long, on our way home, we came to the railway line where a sign instructed us to Give Way to Trains, and that produced a lady-like hoot from my passenger. ‘For goodness sake! Why does anyone need to be instructed like this. Who on earth would think that the train would give way to a car?’ I agreed again, and decided not to ask her to create the right message. And within minutes we were coming to the next village, whose name, on the standard sign that the roads authority uses, told us it was Millers Crossing.
‘There!’ cried my aunt. ‘More illiteracy. Where is the apostrophe? There is no proper teaching in our schools anymore, nephew, and signs like this are a disgrace. Millers aren’t crossing here,’ she announced, remembering the koalas. ‘There was a Mr Miller, and this was where he crossed, and the sign needs the possessive case!’
Now it happens that I am the unannounced President of the hitherto secret Australian Society for the Extirpation of the Apostrophe (ASEA), so I gave her a dignified and kindly burst on the possibility, which ASEA will advocate (when the President gets around to it), that we simply abandon the apostrophe in Australia, largely because so many people have only the vaguest idea of where it goes and why, and mostly get it wrong. Little meaning would be lost if we gave it up, and people like me, and perhaps her, would adjust to it quickly. After all, the Germans also use the possessive ‘s’, but without the apostrophe, and they seem to understand each other. And more to this effect. I was quite proud of myself, really: calm, educative, rational.
‘Rubbish, nephew!’ Great-aunt Winifred retorted. ‘You are giving way to error, and error has to be corrected wherever it is found. Especially in the use of Shakespeare’s English!’
I decided not to tell her that the Bard had several different ways of spelling his name.