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Dear Apostrophe: C Ya

Nearly 30 years ago one of my professors, talking about the way language evolves over time, predicted that the next evolutionary stage would involve common punctuation marks. Specifically, he said, the apostrophe would eventually cease to exist.

Think maybe I should send him a text to let him know just how accurate his prediction was?

As someone who teaches college writing to the text-messaging generation, I have observed that not only apostrophes but also capital letters have become, if not extinct, then at least increasingly conspicuous by their absence–sort of like some of my students when their essays are due.

I first began noticing this trend back in the mid-’90s, when e-mail replaced the telephone as the most common form of interpersonal communication between two people not in the same room. And that was before everyone had a laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone (if not all three). These days, even people in the same room are more likely to communicate electronically than verbally.

The text-messaging revolution has exacerbated the situation. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the attraction of texting. Maybe that’s because I’m still using my old Fred Flintstone signature-model flip phone, which I believe is made of water-buffalo horn and lacks a QWERTY keyboard. Thus I’m constantly having to push buttons multiple times. What a pain.

Couple that with the fact that the curmudgeonly English professor in me refuses to use abbreviations, substitute numbers for letters, or ignore the punctuation that I was so painstakingly (and painfully) taught in my youth.

And there, for me, lies the rub: do you know many times I have to press the “1″ key before I get to the apostrophe?

The upshot is that I seldom text, unless I’m in a situation where I have to communicate but can’t call, such as when my kids are at school or I’m at the barber getting my ear hair trimmed.

For teenagers and young adults, though, it’s different. They text while watching TV, while sitting in class, while driving, even while performing various bodily functions. (Yeah, I know. Too much information.) And so they’re constantly using that handy texting shorthand, perpetually neglecting to capitalize, and consistently ignoring the apostrophe.

All of which would be fine if it applied only to text messaging. The problem, I fear, is that we’re raising an entire generation of students who don’t actually know that they’re supposed to capitalize the first letter of the first word in a sentence. Who don’t realize that the preposition “for” is spelled f-o-r. Who have never really learned–or at least rarely put into practice–the rule that a possessive or a contraction requires an apostrophe.

The result, as my professor foresaw long ago, is that we’re losing a part of our language. Is it really that important, the apostrophe? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure my editor wouldn’t have published this paragraph without four of them.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Johan Larsson.]

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