Are Apostrophes Necessary? No, Not Really.

Language and how we use it.
May 23 2013 12:07 PM

Are Apostrophes Necessary?

Not really, no.

No Apostrophe.

One hundred and eighteen miles north of London, in the town of Boston, England, there lives a retired newspaperman named John Richards who is experiencing an unusually rotten spring. Richards is the founder and chairman of something called the Apostrophe Protection Society. His world, at least as related to the tiny mark that denotes possessives and the omission of letters from certain words, appears to be crashing down around him.

Recent news reports emanating from Richards’ native England, and from across the pond in America, describe a number of ominous developments that could threaten the sanctity of everything his society exists to protect. In March, the Mid Devon district council in southwestern England attempted to banish apostrophes from all area street signs. People went nuts, grammarians groused, and the council ultimately changed course. But celebrations by apostrophe acolytes would soon be contracted. A few months after the Mid Devon switcheroo, the Wall Street Journal noted that the United States Board on Geographic Names maintains a longstanding policy of removing apostrophes from titles proposed for towns, mountains, caves, and other assorted locations Americans like to name. The government doesn’t want us getting the wrong idea about, for instance, whether some guy named Pike actually owns “Pikes Peak.” So that’s why formal place names in the U.S.—aside from a few noteworthy exceptions such as Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon—rarely include apostrophes. English language formalists are now up in arms about that manner of proceeding, too.  

With each new controversy, it becomes increasingly clear that we, as a society, have reached a Pikes Peak of our own when it comes to fussing and nitpicking over things like how we denote possessives and contractions. The apostrophe chatter business, according to Chairman Richards, is booming. He gets 30 or 40 apostrophe-related inquiries each month via email. “My website has received over a million hits,” he says.

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That’s an impressive milestone, to be sure. But Richards’ pride in his page-view numbers does little to obscure the fact that trend lines don’t look all that promising for the long-term security of apostrophes as a standard in written English. It’s becoming more common for corporations to remove apostrophes from their branded names. Texting teenagers tend not to bother with the formal precision of won’t and can’t. Pretty soon we may all be writing things like, “Ill be there later” and “Dont forget to feed Mikes cat.” And if that day arrives, it won’t be a sudden, out-of-the-blue development.

For several decades, writers, scholars, and language rabble-rousers have been suggesting that apostrophes are perhaps less necessary than we might suspect. Such thinking is anathema to the surprisingly large (and unsurprisingly vocal) subset of the population that gets genuinely fired up about apostrophes and their misuse. (As linguist Arnold Zwicky has noted on his blog, apostrophe mistakes are “high on the list of things people peeve about.”)

But the anti-apostrophe brigade has an impressive intellectual pedigree. Take George Bernard Shaw. The author and playwright at some point decided to use apostrophes in contractions only when failing to do so would create a different, familiar word, or homograph—I’ll and Ill, for instance. In 1902, he wrote of apostrophes, “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby, Jr., meanwhile, replaced many apostrophes with forward slashes. (“I/ll never forget that atrocious scene he pulled on us.”) Booker Prize-winning author James Kelman uses apostrophes for possessives but not for contractions in his most recent work. And anyone who has enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has displayed an expert-level capacity to look beyond seemingly variable apostrophe usage. (In a 2007 interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy told her, “There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks.”)

Those weird little marks haven’t been with us, at least in their current form, for quite as long as you might think. In her 2006 best-seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss lays out a brief history of the apostrophe’s usage in the English language—its original, sole use as a signifier of omitted letters during the 16th century, its use in possessives beginning in the 17th century, the development of plural possessive use a century later, followed by the barn doors being thrown open for apostrophes in all the other strange places we’re now used to seeing them. Truss discusses the greengrocer’s apostrophe (“1 Hour Photo’s!”), and highlights some other annoying, but super common apostrophe-related missteps.

“Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation,” she writes. “No matter that you have a Ph.D. and have read all of Henry James twice. 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.”

Yet we are all guilty of making that error occasionally. Everyone, even the brightest and most competent among us, messes up apostrophes from time to time, often in the most ridiculous of ways. So why even bother with these uncouth bacilli that so befuddle and frustrate us?

The number of bloggers and websites suggesting that we get rid of the apostrophe for good has increased dramatically in recent years—and their position is not taken up as some sort of joke. Those who maintain the Kill the Apostrophe website, for instance, take this stuff seriously. The site’s manifesto notes that the apostrophe “serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.” It asserts that apostrophes are redundant, wasteful, snobbish, and anachronistic in an era of text messaging. Apostrophes “consume considerable time and resources” and, according to the website, “Tremendous amounts of money are spent every year by businesses on proof readers, part of whose job it is to put apostrophes in the ‘correct’ place—to no semantic effect whatsoever.” We’d all be “better off without em.”

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