Friday, July 24, 2020


I don't know why "Have we murdered the apostrophe?" popped up in Firefox recommendations on my tablet today.  The article was posted at in February.  But it was effective clickbait, and it's not without interest.

I learned from it that the apostrophe was invented in the early 1500s, evidently by a French printer who also invented the cedilla and the accent.  At first it was used to indicate the omission of one or more letters, as in contractions.  "And sometimes they were added in for no obvious reason, for example in this line, by 17th Century poet Robert Herrick: 'What fate decreed, time now ha's made us see.'"

It wasn't until the 1600s and 1700s that the apostrophe began to signify the possessive in nouns and pronouns.
But it clearly took some time for the apostrophe to take hold. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were among the many authors inconsistent in their apostrophe use. And there was confusion or disagreement from the very early days of its deployment – that has not entirely cleared up five centuries later. It’s worth remembering that there has never been a time when people agreed on the ‘correct’ function of the apostrophe. "Not only does such consensus not exist in the past, it doesn’t exist now: the role of this troubling little punctuation mark is still in flux," as Merriam Webster puts it.
"Take hold" seems wrong somehow.  It sounds to me like the apostrophe took hold quickly, and ran riot in the fields of English writing.  But yes, writers of English evidently didn't quite know what to do with this rambunctious little Frenchman.

As the article acknowledges, one difficulty is that the apostrophe has different functions - omission, to signal the possessive, and though author Hélène Schumacher doesn't mention it, in British usage it signals direct quotation (though then it's known as a single quote, but it's the same mark; in American usage it's a quotation mark when a quotation is nested within another quotation).  I'm not sure how important this particular issue is.  I'm more inclined to blame ineffective and sometimes wrongheaded teaching, with the expectation that students should pick up the complexity of apostrophe use quickly.  With schools more and more dominated by standardized testing, there's even less time than there was formerly.

I'm a grammar / punctuation / spelling neurotic myself, and it annoys me when I encounter "it's" as the possessive of it.  But I still want to advocate what I consider the best solution to the problem of "misuse" of the apostrophe:

Get rid of it.

This is not a Modest Proposal.  I'm serious about it, so let me anticipate an obvious objection.  Schumacher quotes "Colin Matthews, head of English at Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, England," who huffs that
he doesn’t think the evolution of language is "an excuse not to be clear and unambiguous". For him, teaching grammar is about avoiding ambiguity; it’s not about "knowing how an apostrophe is used; it's about clarity in meaning." ...

There are, of course, multitudes who survive perfectly well without knowing how to use apostrophes, but Matthews believes that while there are still prospective employers "who will throw a job application in the bin if the apostrophes are wrong," we need to continue teaching children how to use them correctly.
Ah, there, you see -- it's not him, it's those "prospective employers," and he's thinking only of the children and their futures.  This just tells me that he's just throwing objections at the wall in hopes that one of them will stick.  If the issue really were clarity in meaning, then it wouldn't matter what employers think.  Many of them don't know or care how to punctuate or spell either: Schumacher mentions companies like the British bookseller Waterstones, which recently dropped the apostrophe from its name to make it "more 'versatile' for online use", and the American company Lands' End, which "has maintained the use of an incorrect apostrophe and built it into its heritage. Wouldn't the same objection justify racial or religious bigotry: I would never discriminate, all are precious and equal in my sight, but there's no point in sending Jews to apply when "prospective employers" won't hire them.  Just convert all the kids to the C of E.

(An aside: the article includes a photograph of the New York Times building, with the caption, "Publications such as The New York Times serve to arbiter what is wrong or right when it comes to apostrophes and other grammatical usage."  According to my Merriam-Webster's College Dictionary, Tenth Edition, "arbiter" is a noun, not a verb.  The unabridged agrees.  Does the BBC trump their authority?)
However, as Tom Hyndley, the headmaster of Churchfields Primary School notes, the apostrophe is certainly valuable in its ability to aid comprehension in written English: "my view, probably like many in education, is that grammar [such as apostrophes] is useful because of its ability to clarify, change or convey meaning not as an end in its own right.”
I agree.  As a writer, I love the way that subtle use of punctuation, word order -- all kinds of factors -- can be used to convey meaning in writing.  But when I thought about it for a while, I had trouble remembering or thinking of instances where an apostrophe did such a thing.  Far more often, it seems to me that I am tripped up by the "misuse" of apostrophes, annoyed when someone writes "it's" for "its", puts an apostrophe into a plural, and the like.  At a minimum, if I had dictatorial power I would make "it's" the possessive form of "it."  It shouldn't cause confusion with "it's" as a contraction, since it doesn't seem to with other nouns.  The irregularity of the form confuses far more people than it clarifies, and it mainly serves as a club for language snobs to bash other people with.  I think we should take that club from their well-manicured hands and throw it away.

Still, I want to go further.  I don't think we need the apostrophe for possessive nouns either, or for contractions.  Bernard Shaw, among other writers, insisted on printing contractions without apostrophes, and it doesn't seem to confuse anyone for more than a minute or two.  Context will signal whether a noun is a possessive or a plural.  If teachers can't develop ways to teach students how to use the apostrophe "correctly" -- and centuries of confusion argue that they can't -- then it creates more confusion and ambiguity than it prevents.  I come to bury the apostrophe, not to praise it.  I'd miss it, but I'm willing to sacrifice my comfort for the greater good.