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.”