1. Education
Richard Nordquist

The Long Campaign to Abolish the Apostrophe

By October 29, 2008

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The peculiar phenomenon of recklessly apostrophized plurals is nothing new. Lynne Truss's prescriptive ancestors were ridiculing "grocer's" back in the 19th century. And though apparently simple, the guidelines for using the apostrophe have been eccentrically applied since the mark first popped up in the 1500s. As editor Tom McArthur notes in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), "There was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people."

With customary reserve and indecision, we've declined to take sides in the Great Apostrophe Debate. But we would like to hear whether you think the apostrophe is worth preserving. . . .


For the complete article, see Should the Apostrophe Be Abolished?


Comments

October 31, 2008 at 2:20 pm
(1) Kevin - Cooking for Two says:

Lynne Truss names her chapter on apostrophes, “The Tractable Apostrophe” argues that as long as the purpose of the apostrophe was to indicate an absence or elision as in “he’ll” or “won’t” it served a perfectly practical purpose. But that since it began to be used to indicate possession in the 18th century, “the whole thing has spiralled into madness.”

I agree, “he’ll” isn’t equivalent to “hell” nor “won’t” to “wont,” and my opinion is that disambiguation is always a good idea when attempting to communicate (except when ambiguity is intended).

October 31, 2008 at 2:28 pm
(2) Joseph Duvernay says:

I for one, yield to a full many instances in
a past life: that of (late) juvenilia in
verse, whence a free and often mistaken use,
whether mine, as most was, or some faulting
editor’s (that betimes re-read, gave an
economy (some kind of license taken) that at
end made better sense and Got To what wanted))
of friend apostrophe – “Gk: apostrophe, lit.,
act of turning away. 1: the addressing of a
usu. absent person or a usu. personified thing
rhetorically. [Carlyle's "O Liberty, what
things are done in thy name!"] is example.
2. Gk: apostrophos, turned away. a mark ‘ used
to indicate the omission of letters or
figures, the possessive case, or the plural
of letters or figures.” –> Webster’s
Collegiate Dictionary.
Admitted and apologizing, having more learned
a thing or two over years, yet not asking
forgiveness for act of giving which under any
writers’ hat, has to be first instance, first
case; lay loose language and grammar and
punctuation’s mold to say your say, we shall
attempt understanding.

October 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm
(3) RG Schmidt says:

As a book author and newspaper and magazine journalist, I would be against dropping the use of the apostrophe. I see no harm in using a simple mark to make clear one’s meaning, and feel the majority of those who would abolish it simply don’t know how to properly use it, or, in this age of e-mail and instant messaging, don’t want to bother.

I strongly believe the latter reason is the most prevelant; but then, as you see, I also still hyphenate “e-mail” as, I might add, my stylebooks suggest.

October 31, 2008 at 4:05 pm
(4) Betty's daughter says:

I’m Betty’s daughter and my mother’s name is Betty. If there were no apostrophes, would I be the daughter of Bettys? To have two moms, that’s quite a trick. I can’t even imagine it! If I can not then don’t you know? Apostrophes just can not go.
Of course it should not be abused. It never should be overused. But abolish it? We’d be confused. So yes, I think it should be used.Were we to take the mark away, when writing dialogue we’d say, “would not, not wouldn’t, should not, not shouldn’t. Do not, not don’t, Will not, not won’t. Then what would court reporters do? They must transcribe words that are true. They can’t misquote even a mark. And what about the office clerk? (British pronunciation) He couldn’t ever miss a mark. Imagine What Scrooge would have done, If Cratchet had missed even one?
No, apostrophes still have their place. They’re too important to erase. They say too much so many ways. I give them due respect and praise.

October 31, 2008 at 4:15 pm
(5) laura says:

This whole discussion should be titled (though I know the title is already taken) “Much Ado About Nothing”. Honestly, when I was a child and learned English, the use of the apostrophe was taken for granted and taught in the same way in every school (and there were many) in which I took an English course. But really! I know it’s sometimes misused and abused, just as the exclamation point (which people are always telling writers to use sparingly) seems to be another hapless punctuation mark which has its legitimate uses. It does seem that grammarians, editors, professors and other erudite scholars could employ themselves, their time and their money (especially if their being paid for their work) on more productive issues. I can think of many other issues in the language, such as the confusing array of single and double quotation marks, parentheses, brackets, braces, and various other more obscure but annoying little marks which nobody seems to be able to agree as to exactly how they are to be used. Things did seem to be straightforward when I was growing up. The comma rule, for instance, seem to have changed. I guess the comma may have been a bit overused at times. But the pendulum seems to have swung the other way. It’s hard for me to remember that fewer commas are allowed now. Then there are those infrequently used but seemingly (to me) ambiguous semicolons. Hmm. Remember National Punctuation Day? Maybe we should have “National Punctuation Month” (or week) in which a different punctuation mark, and any controversies surrounding it, be discussed. Just a thought.
Laura

October 31, 2008 at 11:18 pm
(6) Alison says:

I’m known as the Queen of the Apostrophes, and my daughter, The Princess. Her teacher in Grade 5 said she was the only child in that year who knew how to use the apostrophe. That’s because her mother taught her well. One of the tips she inherited was to ask, “Who owns the object?” eg “Who owns the feet?” The apostrophe denoting ownership is then placed after the answer eg “The children’s feet” or “The wolves’ feet”. Simple! Abolition would indicate a lack in the ability to think systematically and logically.

November 3, 2008 at 11:18 am
(7) Gina says:

Abolishing the apostrophe would mean getting rid of a major source of annoyance for this copy editor.

I’m referring, of course, to other people’s misuse of it.

I used to think that if I could do it, anyone could. The problem is not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t care – and that’s the part that hurts.

Languages evolve. Even French spelling is undergoing some major “renovations”.

Gina

November 3, 2008 at 1:38 pm
(8) Richard Free says:

Let usage, or lack thereof, take care of the issue. Languages change, so let this change happen. No need for concern, we’ll/well adjust.

November 3, 2008 at 2:26 pm
(9) Bryan says:

French spelling is undergoing “renovation”? Sacre blu! Zut alor! *grin*

November 3, 2008 at 3:56 pm
(10) Joanne says:

Just as people misspell words, or use them incorrectly, the apostrophe is misused. That doesn’t mean we should lower our standard of correctness. Why should we ‘dumb down’ so many things for so few people? Keep the apostrophe!

November 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm
(11) Joe Callan says:

If we’re removing linguistic elements because they’re misused or “unnecessary,” we really ought to jump the gap and begin writing Orwell’s NEWSPEAK dictionary.

Am I the only person who finds this idea double plus ungood?

February 10, 2010 at 6:32 pm
(12) Josh of Boots says:

When in doubt, leave it out. That’s what I say. Make the apostrophe optional. Teach kids how to use it properly, but if they’re not sure how to use it, it’s best to leave it out.

October 24, 2010 at 5:49 am
(13) summer says:

Good. donít forget to check out the other articles if you havenít already

October 26, 2010 at 6:41 am
(14) Richard W. Thomas says:

My first inclination is to say we should establish a totalitarian state that would force everyone to use the apostrophe correctly; but I guess that’s wrong. So instead I say, yes for contractions, no for everything else.

March 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm
(15) Michael Willhoite says:

I love the apostrophe — when used properly. By your excellent example “Sgt. Pepper’s etc.” you demonstrate it. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band makes no sense at all. The most effective way to preserve the proper ‘postrophe (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is to have teachers TEACH it properly!

April 30, 2011 at 4:42 am
(16) Contraction Man says:

We dont use apostrophes in spoken language and can fully understand what is said. We dont need them in written language either.

December 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm
(17) Kimmy says:

Really?

“And just last month, Dr. John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College, London, dismissed the apostrophe as “a waste of time.” Speaking at the centenary dinner of the Spelling Society, he asked, “Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?” ”

If it is such a waste of time then why are you fretting about it being used? I say they are useful, even if I usually spell out my contractions anyway.

October 18, 2012 at 4:33 am
(18) SJS says:

I think Kevin has made the best point: apostrophes should be used to indicate missing letters.

Alas, the point was made too nicely.

If we simply give up and discard the useful apostrophe entirely, and try to deal with ambiguity with context, well, we’ll deserve the grief we get. There is no reason a reader should resolve ambiguity in such a way so as to favor the writer — if the more amusing/malicious/detrimental interpretation is to conclude that the writer eschewing apostrophes is an idiot, who is the writer to say the reader is wrong?

I was taught that the burden of communication resides with the writer; the reader merely needs to bring a sufficient vocabulary and basic understanding of grammar. It is not the duty of the reader to correctly deduce the intent of the writer. (Too many people either were not taught this, or rejected the lesson.)

In short, assume the reader is Satan, misinterpreting every ambiguity in the worst possible way.

As for those who do not see much of a need to distinguish between spoken rules and written rules, they forget that when you say something confusing in speech, you can be interrupted and asked to clarify immediately. That is a luxury in written communication, but a necessity in spoken conversation.

Give up on the apostrophe entirely? Why not just give up written communication? After all, if it’s hard to write, it should be hard to read, so make the reader puzzle out meaning. Let them work for their enlightenment!

Embrace ambiguity. Discard meaning. Foster chaos.

What could possibly go wrong?

October 28, 2012 at 11:45 am
(19) Grampa.Grumpus says:

I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with SJS!

But that there are ambiguous cases that cannot be solved by context is self-evident to anyone living in the real world.

Take an example from the article above: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Was the leader’s name “Peppers” or “Pepper”? Is his name part of the band’s offical title, or does the sentence simply indicate ownership?

The Lonely Hearts Club Band might be a band owned or sponsored by the local “lonely hearts club” or perhaps simply draw its membership therefrom… with or without Sgt. Peppers, or Sgt. Pepper, or both— under or absent the blessing of the local Lonely Heart’s Club or Lonely Hearts Club…, or Clubs.

And that only when either Sgt. Pepper, or Sgt. Peppers, or both were on furlough…

For those of you laughing in consternation at the multiple varieties of Peppers, I assure you the confusion isn’t necessarily manufactured.

In my youth I had a friend who was graced with the family name “Peppers”— ” …that’s with an ‘S’! Thank you very much!” he’d always add during introductions. We used to kid him that after we mustered out, when we were civilians again, he ought to have that embroidered in tatoo on his arm.

He came by his sensitivity honestly though. Our platoon was moved to a Rest and Recovery area for five weeks. After two weeks of no mail we found out that his name had been recorded as “Pepper” and his family had been notified he was MIA. I had always suspected that it was some company clerk who had the same dislike of apostrophes as G.B.Shaw who, on seeing Peppers name simply thought that the “unnecessary” apostrophe had been omitted and simply cleaned it up.

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