The Apostrophe Protection Society – Part I

For twenty years, a former copy editor named John Richards fought for the correct usage of apostrophes. But recently he has admitted defeat, declaring that “The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Richards (who’s 96 years old, incidentally) isn’t taking down the website for the Apostrophe Protection Society he founded. But he will no longer be posting content. You can read more here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/02/apostrophe-protection-society-john-richards-england/

I’m a stickler about apostrophes (of course!), but I’m not one of Richards’ fans. My position is that before you start railing against a punctuation mistake, you need to know what you’re talking about. I appreciate his passion for good English, but – truth to tell – sometimes Richards is wrong.

This is the first of two posts discussing some offbeat and interesting points about apostrophes. (But if you’d like to work on the conventional rules for apostrophes, good for you! Go to this link.)

I had fun writing this post today. Even if you’re not as fascinated by grammatical pickiness as I am, I hope you’ll enjoy watching some supposedly hallowed usage rules crumble and fall apart.

Here’s an example. Richards said that his sole victory (in 20 years!) was getting a local library to correct its sign for “CD’s.” Well, good for him! But the sign didn’t need correcting.

Plurals of numerals, letters, and acronyms always used to have apostrophes: 1990’s, ABC’s, GMO’s, RSVP’s, SEO’s. Recently they’ve begun to disappear (the AP no longer uses them, for example). But some professional writers still use them. And take a look at the logo for the Oakland A’s:

Let’s look at another issue. Richards is infuriated by signs advertising “ladies fashions”  or claiming that “Diamond’s are forever.” I’m with him 100% on that unnecessary apostrophe in diamonds. I see those unnecessary apostrophes everywhere, and I too wish we could get rid of them.

But what about that omitted apostrophe in ladies?  I’m not sure that a sign for the Ladies Room (“room of the ladies”) absolutely has to include an apostrophe – Richards notwithstanding.

A grammarian could say that ladies is functioning as an adjective – and that would mean no apostrophe. That’s already used as an argument for omitting the apostrophe in Teachers Lounge.

And consider the word newsroom. It originally was news-room or news room – without an apostrophe. Newsroom (one word) didn’t appear until 1984. 

So why would we insist that news room (“room of news”) doesn’t need an apostrophe, but ladies’ room (“room of ladies”) absolutely requires it? I’d say it doesn’t. There’s no grammatical difference.

The Kellogg Company, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and a number of other companies still use the term news room – without an apostrophe.

I hope I’ve shaken your faith in the notion that the rules of English are always logical and consistent. And I hope you’ll return to this blog when I post Part II. I promise some surprises!

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