Is the Apostrophe Disappearing?

Updated on December 28, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Apostrophes are used to show possession or to indicate missing letters in a contraction. So, it’s George’s Restaurant, but too often we see Open Sunday’s or Mens Apparel.

But, there’s a murky area as outlined in an interview by Ammon Shea, author of Bad English: “Ever since their introduction into the language, apostrophes have kind of shifted and changed, and they’ve never been subject to any sort of agreement.”

As the rules surrounding the use of the punctuation mark change, apostrophes might evolve into extinction.

The apostrophe is sad because so many people misuse it.
The apostrophe is sad because so many people misuse it. | Source

The Origin of the Apostrophe

Merriam-Webster says the apostrophe first appeared on Planet Earth in 1509 in an Italian edition of Petrarch’s poems. Or, it was invented by the French printer Geoffroy Tory in 1529. Take your pick; apparently, historians can’t agree on who gets the blame. The squiggly thing migrated into the English language around 1560.

More important than when, is why.

Initially, the apostrophe was used to indicate that a letter was left out. But, why letters were replaced by a punctuation mark is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps, it was about replacing letters that weren’t pronounced, so we got talk’d. On the other hand, their use was sometimes capricious as when the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote “What fate decreed, time now ha’s made us see.”

The apostrophe is a magnificently arbitrary little frill, antique, fussy, and almost begging to be used incorrectly, like a fish fork.”

John McWhorter teaches linguistics at Columbia University

Once the apostrophe appeared on the scene it grew in popularity.

However, some writers went completely berserk with it. The seventeenth century playwright, Sir George Etherege, gave us the following line in his comedy The Man of the Mode: “ ‘Zbud you have no reason to talk.” ‘Zbud is a contraction of God’s blood. And nautical types gave us the forward (for’ard) portion of a ship spelled “forecastle” but abbreviated to and pronounced as “fo’c’s’le.”

A lot of these uses happened before spelling was codified. Today, there are many acceptable apostrophe-laden contractions: o’clock (of the clock), who’ll (who will/who shall), can’t (cannot) and the ever-popular south of the Mason-Dickson Line y’all (you all)

The Possessive Apostrophe

Here lies a thicket of potential grammar trip wires for the unwary writer.

We can back-peddle to Old English where an “es” was added to a noun to denote possession: the vicares bible, the farmeres cow. Then, along came the apostrophe to boot out the letter “e.” Now, we have television’s terrible reality shows, and the president’s endless lies.

However, there seems to be some disagreement among those who study the evolution of English that this is exactly how we ended up with the possessive apostrophe.

Now, we have to confront the plural possessive apostrophe. (The writer offers a small incantation to the grammar gods asking for help in not messing this up).

Caveat

It is an immutable law that anyone who sets out to write an article about grammar will inevitably commit a syntax howler.

It is best in such circumstances to borrow the voice of experts, so here is thepunctuationguide.com, “The possessive of a plural noun is formed by adding only an apostrophe when the noun ends in s, and by adding both an apostrophe and s when it ends in a letter other than s.”

This leads to “the girls’ cricket team” and “two months’ holiday.” When the plural noun ends in an s, we get “the Jones’s car” and “Texas’s largest cities.” However, possessive plural nouns can cause some pretty clunky writing, but there’s a work around by using the word “of.”

“The beauty of Illinois’s Constitution” comes out sounding a bit like a tongue twister, so the way to avoid this is to write “The beauty of the Constitution of Illinois.”

Source

The Apostrophe Society

For several years one man has fought a rearguard action against the grammar vandals. For 18 years, retired British journalist John Richards operated The Apostrophe Protection Society with the goal of “preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English Language.”

However, late in 2019, Mr. Richards announced that he was withdrawing from the battlefield. He cited two reasons: “One is that at 96 I am cutting back on my commitments and the second is that fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English Language.”

His parting shot was quoted by the BBC: “We have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times has won.”

Source

Apostrophe Haters

James Harbeck describes himself as “a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics).” In a Slate article he writes that “The English language would be better off without apostrophes.”

We can clearly understand what someone means if they write wouldnt, isnt, or doesnt, even if autocorrect cant.

There are members of the grammar police who delight in pointing out the misplacement of the apostrophe; it’s egregious snobbery we can well do without. Of course, such folk would find something else to be all superior about if the apostrophe was trashed.

Businesses such as Barclays Bank, Harrods, and Starbucks have expunged the apostrophe from their branding.

Texting has done a good job of wounding the apostrophe. Brandwatch is a company that analyses the use of social media. In 2013, it reported on the five most common errors of grammar found on Twitter; they were all apostrophe misuses.

Despite all the assaults on the humble squiggle, it’s still got some life left in it. The last word goes to Merriam-Webster: “Here’s a cheering thought: no matter how badly you misuse this punctuation (apostrophe), there is a good chance that some famous writer in the past has done the same thing. Furthermore, there is a sporting chance that any mistakes you make with it will one day come back into fashion.”

Seen on a Coffee Mug

My Life Is a Constant Battle between Wanting to Correct Your Grammar and Wanting Friends

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2009, the pooh-bars that run the council in Birmingham, England decided to dispense with the apostrophe in the city’s signage. So, St. Paul’s Square became St. Pauls Square, and King’s Heath has turned into Kings Heath. The rationale given was that because few people understood the proper use of apostrophes, navigating around Birmingham had become difficult. The move was not received with universal approval.
  • Written French contains an average of one apostrophe per sentence, whereas in English the frequency is about once in every 20 sentences (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
  • Playwright George Bernard Shaw was a lifelong advocate for simpler English. He banished apostrophes from most of his plays.
  • Lynne Truss, author of the immensely popular punctuation book Eats, Shoots and Leaves comes down hard on apostrophe transgressors: “If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Sources

  • “Do Apostrophes Still Matter?” Holly Honderich, BBC News, December 9, 2019.
  • “The Abused, Misused Apostrophe.” Alexander Nazaryan, The Atlantic, August 22, 2013.
  • “The History of the Apostrophe.” Mignon Fogarty, Quick and Dirty Tips, October 2, 2014.
  • “Kill the Apostrophe!” James Harbeck, Slate, September 20, 2013.
  • “Apostrophe.” The Punctuation Guide, undated.
  • “The Foolish, Malicious War on Apostrophe’s” John McWhorter, The New Republic, September 30, 2013.
  • “Say It Aint So: The Movement to Kill the Apostrophe.” Katy Steinmetz, Time, September 24, 2013.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      6 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for your input Kari and Ann.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 months ago from SW England

      Ok, I hold up my hand, I defend the apostrophe! But then I never found it difficult to understand - nothing to do with my abilities, all to do with good teachers.

      The problem comes when meaning is compromised. Let's take your example of King's Heath - take away the apostrophe and are we talking about one King or more? That might seem trivial but wars have been fought over such things! We will have to be much more careful with wording.

      I can understand getting annoyed with them but I'm keeping mine!

      Ann

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      6 months ago from Ohio

      Rupert, I love the quote from the coffee mug. Texting is changing our language, for better or worse. I see so many mistakes, like there/their, in their "text speak" it is appalling. However, change is inevitable and what is appalling to me is nothing special to the next. Have a wonderful New Year's.

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      6 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      I'm glad to see you are reporting "present and on duty."

      Sorry, I can shed no further light on "Zbud." When Googled, we discover it is a company in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Poland, engaged in the manufacturing of industrial equipment. That is probably not the reference we are after.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      6 months ago from Toronto, Canada

      "members of the grammar police" - Haha!! Present and on duty.

      "Texting has done a good job of wounding the apostrophe." - Please allow me: "Texting has done a good job of mangling and mutating the English language." You were way too nice on that one, in my opinion.

      Thank You for explaing the "o'clock" matter. I never actually considered what the apostrophe stood for there. In most cases such as "can't", or "who'll" it seems easily understandable what the apostrophe stands for. In the case of ‘Zbud though, God help us. How is that relatable to "Good's blood" is beyond me. Do explain if You know, please. Thank You.

      Alrighty, interesting article! I'm keeping the apostrophe 'cause I like it. Haha!!

      You have yourself a good Holyday Season and best of luck for the year to come! Cheers!

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)