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.

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.”

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.”

Beyond that?

“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.”  

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.