Though the guidelines for using apostrophes seem simple enough, they've been eccentrically applied ever since the mark first appeared in the 1500s. As editor Tom McArthur notes in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, "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."
Defenders of the Mark
The reckless use of apostrophes can drive teachers and editors to tears--and sometimes to action. In an effort to tame the wild mark, usage militias have assembled throughout the English-speaking world. There's an American Apostrophe Association operating out of Oregon, and England is home to both the Apostrophe Protection Society and the AAAA (Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe).
In opposition to these protectors of punctuation are the advocates for abolition of the apostrophe, a group that has been waging its campaign for over a century.
The Campaign to Abolish Apostrophes
Pikes Peak, named after explorer Zebulon Pike, lost its apostrophe in 1891. That was the year that the newly formed U.S. Board on Geographic Names declared that the "possessive form using an 's' is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed."
A few decades later, linguist Steven Byington called for a ban on what he called that "morbid growth in English orthography." Writing in American Speech, he observed that "the language would be none the worse for its abolition."
Similarly, in an article bluntly titled "Axing the Apostrophe," Adrian Room argued that apostrophes are simply unnecessary. So what if "we'll" appears as "well" or "he'll" as "hell." Context, he insisted, "should soon show which word is meant, and grammatical parameters would make ambiguity unlikely" (English Journal, 1989).
English teacher Peter Brodie also disapproves of apostrophes (those "uncouth bacilli," in George Bernard Shaw's words). The marks "are largely decorative," Brodie says, "like the French circumflex, and--unlike the comma--rarely clarify meaning" (English Journal, 1995).
More recently, Dr. John Wells, emeritus professor of phonetics at University College, London, dismissed the apostrophe as "a waste of time." Speaking at a dinner of the Spelling Society in September 2008, he asked, "Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?"
A year later the city council in Birmingham, England, raised a ruckus when it announced that apostrophes would be eliminated from street signs and place names. Councilor Martin Mullaney, who drafted the new policy, argued that apostrophes "denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed. More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don't want to have an A-level in English to find it."
Pragmatic Educators and the IM Crowd
According to my unscientific poll, two quite different groups are behind the campaign to abolish the apostrophe.
One group is made up of learned individuals such as Room, Brodie, and Wells: pragmatic educators who have decided that trying to enforce the rules in the face of the mark's widespread abuse is hardly worth the effort. If the apostrophe has become the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation marks, it probably deserves no respect and might just as well quietly slip off the keyboard.
If you think that judgment is harsh, consider the view of the other group of abolitionists--those whom we might call the IM crowd. Not only is the apostrophe unnecessary, but far worse, it's uncool. Peter Buck, guitarist with the now-disbanded rock group R.E.M., speaks plainly: "We all hate apostrophes. There's never been a good rock album that's had an apostrophe in the title."
(Really? Number one on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
Are You Ready to Ban the Apostrophe?
With customary reserve and indecision, I've declined to take sides in the Not-So-Great Apostrophe Debate. But you can take a bold stand simply by choosing where to enjoy a cup of coffee--at McDonald's (with apostrophe) or at Starbucks (without).
And if you're not ready to ban the apostrophe just yet, check out Stephen Notley's illustrated version of the rules: Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots (at Bob the Angry Flower Web Site). Or my somewhat gentler page, Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly.