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Being an Apostrophe

A putative grammar outrage blew up a week ago in Britain when the Conservative-dominated Mid Devon district council announced plans to “abolish the apostrophe.” The signs for Beck’s Square, Blundell’s Avenue, and St. George’s Well would under the new policy say Becks Square, Blundells Avenue, and St Georges Well. Indeed, the council has been using apostrophe-free signs for years, like other districts (the pictured sign for Baker’s View is in neighboring Teignbridge district). The proposal was simply to make the tacit policy official.

But out came the usual suspects to froth and fulminate. A spokesperson for the Plain English Society, Steve Jenner, launched straight into a slippery-slope argument (as if nothing had ever been written on fallacies or critical thinking): “It’s nonsense,” he raged; “Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”

Within about three working days the media outcry had bullied the Mid Devon council into reversing itself.

What interested me, however, was not the policy or the abandonment of it but the many references to “punctuation” in the overheated news coverage. The apostrophe is not a punctuation mark. It doesn’t punctuate. Punctuation marks are placed between units (sentences, clauses, phrases, words, morphemes) to signal structure, boundaries, or pauses. The apostrophe appears within words. It’s a 27th letter of the alphabet. This issue concerns spelling.

Several other characters have joined the 26 letters as characters that appear in written words: the @-sign in e-mail addresses; “+” and “#” in the programming language names C++ and C#; and of course one punctuation mark that serves ambiguously as a letter, in the typographically unpleasant corporate name Yahoo!. The apostrophe just has a longer history than these. It occurs in:

  1. inflectionally negated auxiliary verbs bearing the n’t suffix (yes, it’s a suffix: see this paper by Arnold Zwicky and me in Language 59 [1983], 502-513);
  2. the clitic forms of certain auxiliaries (’d for had and would, ’ll for will, ’m for am, ’re for are, ’s for is and has, and ’ve for tensed have; see the same paper);
  3. proper names such as O’Brien or D’Arcy;
  4. various other words originating as abbreviations or foreign names, like ’60s, c’mon, e’en, ne’er-do-well, o’clock, rock ’n’ roll, etc.;
  5. the irregular plurals of certain unusual nouns (A’s and B’s, 3’s and 4’s, I’s and me’s); and above all
  6. the genitive forms of nouns (the personal pronouns are exceptional nouns with the irregular apostrophe-free genitive forms her, his, its, my, our, their, whose, and your; the pompous-style indefinite pronoun one, as in One should recuse oneself, is an exception to the exception, with a regular genitive, one’s).

All of this concerns the famously irregular and sometimes insane English orthography. Apostrophes have no punctuation role. (True, a half-page about them on Page 1,763 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does fall in the chapter on punctuation, faute de mieux; but it doesn’t disagree with what I said above.) As usual, the people pothering on about grammar errors don’t know what they’re pothering about.

What of the redundancy that the Mid Devon council seemed to imply? Well, the apostrophe does have the striking peculiarity of lacking any corresponding pronunciation. While e and k and g and h and others are sometimes silent, the letter   is always silent. Hence genitives (singular and plural) are phonetically identical to regular plurals: Box has plural boxes, genitive singular box’s, and genitive plural boxes’, all pronounced the same. Yet hearers aren’t confused.

Google completely ignores the 27th letter unless it’s inside quotation marks. The search pattern tuition fee's will induce Google to show you millions of correctly spelled pages on tuition fees. You have to type "tuition fee's" into the box to see the few thousand cases of people illiterately spelling the plural with an apostrophe. (The top hit is a payment page for a business academy.)

I always use the apostrophe in the standard way, even when texting; I’m a conservative. But human reading abilities are astonishingly robust under even radical disruption of spelling. (You wlll in all lkiehilood have asobtulely no dfficuitly in redaing tihs parnetheitcal rmaerk.) The level of harmful confusion attendant on dropping all apostrophes from written English would be zero.

I’m not going to advocate scrapping it. I’m not a revolutionary. But I wouldn’t shed a tear for it.

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