Say It Aint So: The Movement to Kill the Apostrophe

On National Punctuation Day, here's a look at efforts to obliterate the apostrophe and unleash a Wild West of unmarked possession

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Today is the 10th annual National Punctuation Day, a high holiday on nerd calendars across these great United States. Its stated purpose is to be a celebration of underappreciated, misused marks like the semicolon and “the ever mysterious ellipsis.” But a better-known piece of punctuation has been getting some apocalyptic press and deserves attention on this day of celebration: the apostrophe.

Writers have renewed a question that has long plagued conservative grammarians, particularly since text messages came on the scene: Is it curtains for the apostrophe? “Trend lines don’t look all that promising for the long-term security of apostrophes as a standard in written English,” wrote Slate’s Matthew Malady, noting that the England-based Apostrophe Protection Society is on high alert. In his title he poses the rhetorical question of whether apostrophes are necessary, and in his subtitle he provides an answer: “Not really, no.”

There is some evidence to support the doubters, like the existence of strong anti-apostrophe evangelists. The Kill the Apostrophe website maintains that the apostrophe “serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who don’t.” George Bernard Shaw famously shunned those marks in his plays. And author James Harbeck penned a treatise just last week on why we would all be better off without the apostrophe, arguing that while they do give pedants a reason to gripe, they don’t add clarity, and most people improperly use them anyway.

Some companies, like British bookstore Waterstones, have dropped apostrophes from their brand names. Others, like Starbucks and Folgers, simply don’t use them. Teenagers, according to anecdotes at least, hardly view the apostrophe as an important part of their keyboard. And when social-media analytics site Brandwatch looked at the top five “grammatical errors” on Twitter earlier this year, it found that they’re all apostrophe-based slights to standard English: im, wont, cant, dont and id.

The idea that the apostrophe will soon go the way of pterodactyls and stagecoaches is predicated, however, on the notion that skipping apostrophes in such words won’t be viewed as an “error” in the future. If we’re going to live in a post-apostrophe world where everyone sees punctuation through Cormac McCarthy’s eyes—as goop blotting up an otherwise fine-looking, functional page of text—that suggests a general acceptance of dont and cant. Society, in this theoretical land of unmarked possession, should accept theyll and ill as standard replacements for their obsolete, contracted twins. Dont will be to don’t as donut is to doughnut.

In that world, the anti-apostrophe evangelists might get the powerful allies they need for their dream to become a reality, like teachers and copy editors and tech giants. While text messages might encourage brevity, Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, points out that today’s autocorrect programs are designed around apostrophe use. So as long as the companies coding spell checkers and speech-to-text apps are pro-apostrophe, use will get a boost.

The notion of keeping the apostrophe around isn’t nearly as interesting as considering its demise, of course. Apostrophe haters argue that there was a time when writers existed just fine without that punctuation mark, and it’s possible they will again. But changes to standards as widespread as apostrophe use won’t happen quickly. It requires a revolution in thought and relaxation among gatekeepers of the written word. Copy editors are still changing donut to doughnut, after all. “Language is constantly changing, but predicting what will happen next is notoriously challenging,” Martin says. “It is difficult to believe that copy editors are going to stop distinguishing between its and it’s in the near future.”

8 comments
Claude_Balloune
Claude_Balloune

What get's me is sign's in front of peoples' house's that say "The Johnson's"

The johnson's what?


Rob Ford  is probably an excellent user of the apostrophe... I bet he even smokes them!

PhilipSneyd
PhilipSneyd

I have to agree with the other comments which said this article was hilarious. Thank you for the belly laughs!

Especially chucklesome was the reference to Harbecks conclusion that apostrophes dont add clarity, and then Brandwatchs top five grammatical errors being the apostrophe-based mistakes im, wont, cant, dont and id.

One clear problem with permanently removing the apostrophes from these words is that of the five, at least three are already different words - wont , cant , and id - with completely different meanings.

How could an increasing trend of identical spelling for different words with different meanings improve clarity? Context within speech is one thing, but in print there is no inflection, tone of voice, subtle nuance directed from the speaker to familiar listener, etc.

There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, and most other languages, yet a limited amount of sounds humans are capable of producing. Hence, homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) are absolutely inevitable. So, one way to distinguish them, in print at least, is to spell them differently; for example bear / bare or aisle / Ill / isle.

Spelling all homophones identically, while perhaps convenient (albeit arguably intellectually lazy) would surely only lead to confusion, not clarity.

However, in the above example, wont, cant, and id are not even homophonous with wont, cant and Id. They have completely different meanings AND different pronunciations! And while were at it, lets add ill (sick) and "Ill (I will)  to that list.

Where is the logic in making words look the same when they dont even sound the same?

I concede that we already do have some words in English which are spelt the same yet have not only different meaning but different pronunciations, for example row (as in fight) / row (a boat), bow (your head) / bow (and arrow), etc., but these anomalies are more than enough and, in my humble opinion, we really dont need any more, thank you very much.

Also in the article it suggests that doughnut is obsolete yet some editors still correct donut to doughnut. I always assumed that donut was simply the American spelling variant while doughnut was British. From a European standpoint, we are all aware of the spelling donut (via the brand names of some chains who provide doughnuts) but doughnut is still considered the correct spelling in any other circumstance. 

Which lead me to think that if the apostrophe was ever abolished, I can easily imagine it happening first in America, but definitely not in Britain (at least not for a long time). Simply because traditionally the US have favoured simplification of spelling and grammar over complexity, while the UK have favoured increased clarity over increased ambiguity.

One example is the British using two different spellings for the homophones meter (a device for measuring something specific) and metre (a unit of measurement / 100cm), while the Americans spell them the same way, or cheque (a bill of exchange) and check (to verify), which again Americans spell the same way.

I can understand the desire for simplification - its, after all, deceptively appealing in its convenience. But if we choose to go down the route of total simplification - where all homophones are spelled alike and even words with different meanings AND sounds begin to be spelled the same for the sake of simplicity... surely this would lead to nothing but increased ambiguity in written language and therefore damage its sole intended function as communication?

Respectfully yours,


Philip Sneyd

Irish Apostrophe Preservation Society

UnniN
UnniN

Granted that the apostrophe may not actually make a difference to the meaning of a line (which in fact will be evident by the context) but dammit, it makes writing so colourful ! And how is it offending anyone ? Language has been battered a great deal by the kind of distortions abundant in SMSs and tweets and indeed much of social media conversations to the point where the written exchanges can seem pretty illiterate -- why add to the confusion? And besides, for all those who value thrift, think how much printer's ink you save by using the apostrophe!

MartijnOostra
MartijnOostra

“Most common typography mistakes found on the internet are probably the misuses of apostrophe and quotation marks. We often misuse the prime symbol ( ' ) as the apostrophe ( ’ ) and the double prime ( " ) as the quotation marks ( “ ” ).” ( http://goo.gl/mQ92oC )

Nelida_Kreer
Nelida_Kreer

I enjoyed the article and its tongue-in-cheek style, but although I am one of those grammar-geeks who knows how to use apostrophes (ills of the profession, guys, I am a certified translator, that's - or should it be 'thats'? - why), still some structural correctness should be preserved. For instance, "most people improperly use them anyway" should read "most people use them improperly anyway" (not quite the same, when you look at it closely, is it?). Otherwise, I had myself a good laugh and it made my day, truly.

PaulJJPayack
PaulJJPayack

Plus eliminating the apostrophe just might presage the demise of emoticons :'-)  

eagle11772
eagle11772

I'm against killing the apostrophe, as doing so will render the meanings of too many words unclear.  Also, shouldn't you prioritize and kill the diaeresis in English first ?

robalarn
robalarn

@PhilipSneyd ... There's a society of people dedicated to preventing the apostrophe from going away. Really. I mean... really? People are spending time and energy to... what? Prevent English from changing as a language? Ever?


That homophone thing was pretty funny. There are plenty of languages that don't have the massively non-phonetic spelling of English. Somehow, they seem to be doing just fine.


Also, you have truly baroque views of language that reflects what must be a massive ignorance of languages other than English. Allow me to enlighten you to a few things: English is the only language in the world that marks the possessive with an apostrophe. A lot of languages? They use of. As in, "the book of Charlie" instead of "Charlie's book". And wouldn't you know it - that's actually less ambiguous, because there's less of a chance of the possessive being confused with the plural. Is that a compelling argument for you? I mean, such phrasing would by necessity include a few more words, but it sure helps with that "communicating" thing you have a hard-on about.


Or, since this seems to be about reducing ambiguity through spelling, why don't we make use of that zed, hm? It's supposed to represent the z-sound, anyway. Use z for plural and s for possessive. There, done. Or is that too horrifyingly close to text-speech for you to stomach?


Oh, and about that plural: Plenty of languages don't actually mark the plural, especially in the Far East, like the Chinese languages and Japanese. They expect this information to either be provided by context or to not be necessary. And if something more specific is required, then you can count. Are you so uncultured as to suggest that this makes those languages automatically more difficult to communicate with? Because from the way their economies are kicking our collective asses in the international market, I think their communications skills are negligibly diminished.


Finally, how do you think languages change in the first place? Do you think it's an historical aberration, and your precious Apostrophe Preservation Society will put a stop to all of that nonsense? The Romans called the local accents/dialects within their empire vulgar, and yet these would evolve into what today are the Romance Languages. Is French just bad, ungrammatical Latin to you? Or, to strike closer at home, do you think that Modern English is just poorly spelled, spoken, and ungrammatical Old English? By your "never, ever change, ever" attitude, you'll have to forgive people if they come away from a conversation with you with that impression.