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Is the apostrophe facing a catastrophe?

A new study by Lancaster University shows that there’s a significant drop in the use of apostrophes. That’s dismaying.

November 27, 2021 / 07:45 AM IST
There seems little doubt that the apostrophe’s best days are behind it - another casualty of texting and the Internet.

There seems little doubt that the apostrophe’s best days are behind it - another casualty of texting and the Internet.

“Love Trump’s hate.” That is what Hilary Clinton said in a speech at her final Presidential campaign rally, according to a Globe and Mail report. In case you thought she was being charitable, what she actually said was: “Love trumps hate.”

Love it or hate it, the apostrophe does play a role in written English. That’s why it was dismaying to come across the findings of a recent survey conducted by Lancaster University. Researchers analysed a database of 100 million words for language trends, and found that there was an 8 percent drop in the use of apostrophes when compared with the 1990s.

For many, this wasn’t worth losing sleep over. Even the venerable UK Times asked, “is it really something to get worked up about?” Paradoxically, the newspaper’s editorial then went on to say: “Without them, the meaning of written text would be less clear, which is why The Times continues to use them.”

If you’re among those who feels that the sooner the apostrophe is stamped out the better, you clearly aren’t alone. George Bernard Shaw famously refused to use them in his published plays, saying: “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.” Harsh.

One reason there’s a fuss over apostrophes is, as David Crystal points out, that it arrived much later than most other punctuation marks. Grammarians and printers were still trying to work out the relevant rules even at the end of the nineteenth century. Crystal says that they weren’t entirely successful, “leaving a number of unresolved issues over usage that generated further variation and associated controversy”.

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Over time, changes in the way we use language are inevitable, and it would be pointless to grumble. If such changes lead to a lack of clarity, though, they should be pointed out. This was among the aims of the Apostrophe Protection Society, founded two decades ago by the intrepid John Richards, a former newspaper sub-editor.

“We are aware of the way the English language is evolving during use, and do not intend any direct criticism of those who have made mistakes,” the society proclaimed. Instead, it intended to serve as a reminder of correct usage, and a chance for writers to correct inadvertent errors.

Sadly, the society was disbanded in 2019. At the time, the 96-year-old founder lamented: “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won”.

Earlier, novelist and columnist Keith Waterhouse had, tongue near cheek, also founded an Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe. This had two aims: to round up and confiscate superfluous apostrophes, especially from greengrocer’s stalls where potato's, tomato's and apple's were openly on sale; and to redistribute these by restoring missing apostrophes elsewhere.

Many grammarians have railed against the incorrect use of the apostrophe. In Eats, Shoots and Leaves, her zero-tolerance guide to punctuation, Lynne Truss writes that the apostrophe “has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough”. She outlines its uses – most often indicating a possessive form or omitted letters – and concludes, perhaps optimistically: “Abolish the apostrophe and it will be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it.”

In Dreyer’s English, Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer articulates a pet peeve: using an apostrophe to turn a word into its plural. “For a modest monthly fee,” he writes, “I will come to wherever you are, and when, in an attempt to pluralise a word, you so much as reach for the apostrophe key, I will slap your hand.” Side hustle, anyone?

New Yorker magazine contributor and copy-editor Mary Norris takes a more measured approach. In Between You and Me, she points out an example of the confusion that can arise when the apostrophe is used as a possessive. “Which side of the ‘s’ does it go on in ‘farmer’s market’? I prefer ‘farmers’ market,’ assuming that there is more than one farmer.”

This, among other concerns, is why she feels that “the apostrophe is going to need our prayers” if it is to survive in its approved form. She also wonders if it is a true punctuation mark in the first place. After all, she writes, the apostrophe’s role is to change the form of a word “without indicating a pause or a stop or an intonation or having any effect at the level of the sentence”.

Linguists are welcome to disagree with Norris about this, but there seems little doubt that the apostrophe’s best days are behind it. Another casualty of texting and the Internet.

Perhaps it’s not just the apostrophe that one should be concerned about. The Lancaster University survey also revealed that there was a significant rise in the use of exclamation marks. Now that’s alarming.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Nov 27, 2021 07:38 am
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