John Richards, of course, begs to differ. His pro-apostrophe organization hosts an online discussion forum on the topic of apostrophe errors and offers guidelines for proper usage. “The apostrophe plays a vital part in written English,” Richards says. “Just take the sign outside a block of flats: Residents’ refuse to be placed in bins. Remove the apostrophe and you see a very different notice.”
Richards is correct in that case, of course. But do we really rely on apostrophes to the extent he would have us believe? Would we be rendered confused, bumbling idiots but for their existence? Certain signs point to no.
For starters, potentially confusing punctuation and wording scenarios have been around for ages—and we have, for the most part, handled those situations just fine. “The level of consistency we now have come to expect in terms of spelling and punctuation is a relatively new phenomenon,” says Anne Curzan, a language historian and professor of English at the University of Michigan. “In Shakespeare’s time, the use of punctuation was very different, and not even consistent within individual texts. Manuscripts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods often include instances of the same word spelled differently, even on the same page. And readers managed.”
Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive sciences at MIT who focuses on how people process language and how it is used for communication, puts things in modern context. Language, he says, is rife with ambiguity. And we can usually cope without too much difficulty. As an example, Gibson offers the word run. “That’s a word that has like 20 senses in the dictionary,” he says. “There’s a run in stockings, there’s a run in baseball, there is a run as a long sequence of things happening. They are all pronounced the same, and it’s always written the same. They all get used, and yet it’s extremely easy to know which one is meant.”
That’s because of how we read. “We use whatever information sources there are—word frequencies, syntactic frequencies, local context, knowledge of what’s possible and what’s impossible, world knowledge—to contextualize” as we are reading, Gibson says. The upshot is that humans are extremely good at figuring things out when they read, even if what we are reading is teeming with errors, or potentially confusing ambiguities. “People who are interested in language often have this common [view] that if you spell things wrongly you’re going to somehow undermine your ability to communicate a message,” Gibson says. “I think that’s false.”
And, much to Chairman Richards’ chagrin, it’s the same deal when it comes to apostrophes. With respect to contractions, Gibson laughs about the suggestion that confusion might arise if, for instance, he’ll were to be written as hell, and waves off other assorted contraction-turned-completely-different-words-without-the-apostrophe-type problems. “If we just had some time to learn the new writing of shell or hell, without the apostrophe, there’d be no problem,” he says. “The context in which hell is used versus he’ll are so different that there is just no way that people would have any trouble learning that. And when you mean shell, it’s pretty clear that you don’t mean she’ll. Just the preceding word and the following word will completely disambiguate she’ll from shell. There’s just no chance that’s going to be a problem.”
The likelihood that confusion will result from apostrophe-free plural possessives (as in that Residents’ refuse example) is the objection most often raised by the pro-apostrophe crowd. And it’s not without some merit. “There is a subtlety there, I admit,” notes the creator of the Kill the Apostrophe website. Curzan agrees. “In that instance, it’s true that the apostrophe is useful,” she says. “Removing it there would be a loss. Would people be hopelessly confused and unable to function? Unlikely. But not using the apostrophe there really could create more ambiguity.” Once again, though, context will help. “Very rarely are we dealing with sentences out of context,” Curzan explains. “There are often more cues in spoken language, but even in the written language, it’s pretty rare that we would get a sentence by itself with no additional context.”
Gibson goes one step further. He suggests that inherently confusing sentences like the one Richards cites would come up so infrequently as be unworthy of our worry and concern. “It would have to be something like ‘the authors, plural, immediately followed by a noun which is ambiguous as a verb,’ ” he explains. “So something like: ‘the authors book rooms.’ That could be possessive, or [book] could be a verb. But that’s the kind of situation that is hardly ever going to happen.”
It’s probably best if Chairman Richards and Professor Gibson don’t meet. The rest of us, meanwhile, will proceed through life using apostrophes as we always have—for now. But what if we all woke up tomorrow and decided to never again use apostrophes in written English?
“The first thing that would happen is that a bunch of people would get really upset and say how the world is coming to an end,” says Gibson. “It would look weird, and people would dislike it.”
“Nothing would happen,” Gibson declares, with near certainty. We would learn the new rule, he says, and get used to it, and adjust how we read certain words that used to include apostrophes. “And then people would be able to type a little bit faster. That’s it.”