Opinion | Monday, 9th December 2019
Apostrophes: linguistics expert imagines a happier world without them
Dr Rob Drummond reflects on the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society
By Dr Rob Drummond, Reader in Linguistics
Originally published on The Conversation
Alas, the Apostrophe Protection Society is no more. John Richards, who founded the Society in 2001 in order to help maintain the correct use of the “much abused” punctuation mark, has thrown in the towel, claiming that “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won”.
This is understandable. Mr Richards is 96, and undoubtedly has more interesting things to be doing than fretting over whether Waterstones will ever see the light and reinstate the apostrophe it so wilfully discarded back in 2012.
But where does this leave the rest of us? If there is no APS, who is actually in charge of apostrophes? How will we know how to use them? Without the APS’s (APS’? – see, it’s happening already) guidance, how can we know for sure when to be outraged at their misuse?
As a linguistics expert who researches and teaches the use of the English language and the way it changes over time, I am interested in how people view its different aspects. I actually like to think of the APS not only as a guardian of good apostrophe use, but also as a supplier of quality apostrophes. You can probably pick up cheaper apostrophes from supermarkets and online retailers, but the APS will give you the real deal.
A supermarket or online apostrophe might come packaged in a jumbled set of other punctuation marks with no guidance as to how to use them – whereas a genuine APS apostrophe will come with its own provenance and will be made to fit precisely the context for which it is needed.
Much like a traditional tailor or shoemaker, every item will be infused with craftsmanship and tradition, and a lifelong guarantee if used correctly.
So, no more APS, no more quality apostrophes. And no guidance as to how to use the ones we might already have – even the quality APS ones. It will be a shame to see genuine APS apostrophes being used willy-nilly in badly punctuated signs at the village fete pointing people towards the Tea’s and Coffee’s. But this is what we will be faced with.
Of course, without new quality apostrophes being provided, people might eventually simply stop using them altogether. Maybe they will keep hold of the few APS-certified examples they have left to use for things like wedding invitations and legal documents, and – rather than risk using sub-standard online-sourced punctuation – decide to go without them the rest of the time.
Eventually, those last remaining apostrophes will be used up, leaving us with nothing.
Imagine that. Imagine a world where proper apostrophes ceased to exist. What would happen? There would probably be a period during which people misguidedly tried to re-task commas to do the job of an apostrophe. But this is clearly unsustainable (it’s a gravity issue). We would soon be left apostrophe-less.
To be honest, one outcome of this state of affairs would be to remove a whole source of ammunition for pedants to use against the less-enlightened. The “teas and coffees” issue is immediately rectified – along with every other example of the so-called “greengrocer’s apostrophe” (apple’s, tomato’s and pear’s) that seems to get some people so worked up.
Hardcore apostrophites would no longer be able to roll their eyes at people’s inability to work out where the apostrophe goes in examples such as “The Joneses front door”, “Holding each others hand” or “Others opinions”. Neither would they be able to indulge in their habitual mocking of someone who has used the wrong form of “its”.
In fact, by removing apostrophes altogether, the pedantry arsenal is vastly reduced. Without their favourite punctuation mark of judgement, your average pedant will be forced to make do with old favourites such as split infinitives and insisting on the “correct” meaning of “decimate”.
Who’s rules anyway?
Put this way, the demise of the APS and its guardianship over the apostrophe can only be a good thing. Far from indicating a win for ignorance and laziness, this is a victory for common sense and freedom. In most cases (and certainly in almost all cases of possession), an apostrophe is not actually necessary for understanding. There are very few examples where the lack of an apostrophe genuinely creates confusion or ambiguity, despite what many would have you believe.
The most persuasive illustration of apostrophes not being necessary is the fact that we get along fine without them in spoken language. If something is ambiguous in speech, we rephrase so that it isn’t. We can easily do (and routinely already do) the same in writing. If we all took this view, we would be left with just a handful of genuinely useful apostrophes.
In reality, the Apostrophe Protection Society did not, of course, hold dominion over apostrophes or any other aspect of English. Nobody does. Linguistic conventions (for this is all they are) come and go, and are often based on idiosyncratic preferences from another era. A good grasp of apostrophe use says more about your ability to remember inconsistent patterns than it does about your intelligence.
It seems to me that apostrophes are used to judge others as much as they are used to clarify writing. Maybe the APS finally saw the light and realised this, and decided it wanted no further part in the snobbish pedantry that surrounds this fetishised punctuation mark. Or maybe John Richards will read this article, and, passion renewed, decide he must carry on the fight.