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 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 ex-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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
- 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.”
- “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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 09, 2020:
Thanks for your input Kari and Ann.
Ann Carr from SW England on January 09, 2020:
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!
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 29, 2019:
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 (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 28, 2019:
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 from Toronto, Canada on December 28, 2019:
"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!