In my previous post, I told you about the Apostrophe Protection Society. It was founded by a former copy editor who’s fighting against apostrophe mistakes. I applaud the effort, but I want to note that sometimes John Richards (the Society’s founder) makes mistakes.
Today I want to take a broad look at how and why we use apostrophes. (If you’d like to review the traditional rules for using apostrophes, click here.)
1. Why do we need apostrophes?
We probably don’t. The English language got along perfectly well without them for hundreds of years. Even when apostrophes finally made their way into English in the 16th century, there was a lot of confusion about them.
At first apostrophes stood only for missing letters (the missing “o” in don’t, for example). Soon, though, they began to be used with some plurals (comma’s). Today that’s considered a serious error, but it used to be accepted usage.
In the 18th century, apostrophes began to be used in “of” expressions: “Tom’s car.” Gradually the rules were standardized.
Many people (including me!) think apostrophes should be part of every writer’s toolbox. But let’s remember that apostrophes are relative newcomers – they’re not essential. You can read more here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/05/apostrophes-and-when-to-use-them-punctuation-necessary-at-all-not-really.html
2. Does everyone agree about apostrophe rules?
Would that it were so! No, they don’t. For example, I often see mistakes with the apostrophe in people’s. (“The people’s wishes” is correct). Even some professional writers make mistakes with its and it’s.
The problems go beyond occasional slip-ups. Sometimes even the experts can’t settle on a rule that satisfies everyone. I confess that I’m one of the offenders: I refuse to add an extra “s” in expressions like “Carl Jones’ car” and “Lois’ job.” (The sticklers insist on “Carl Jones’s car” and “Lois’s job.” Nope. I’m stubborn.)
Then there are the debates about whether the apostrophes in “of” expressions are always necessary. Last week Dave Norman – a regular visitor to my blog – told me something I didn’t know: The US Board on Geographic Names discourages the use of apostrophes in place names.
If you’re thinking that’s a sign of the deterioration of English, think again: that stance goes all the way back to 1890.
Some exceptions are allowed, so that there are apostrophes in Martha’s Vineyard and Clark’s Mountain, but none in Pikes Peak and Harpers Ferry.
3. Do apostrophes serve a useful purpose?
My answer used to be “Of course!” – but now I’m not so sure. Getting every picky little apostrophe right takes time and concentration – and I’m not sure all that effort makes any difference.
A moment ago I realized that my Jones example was wrong earlier in this post. Of course I fixed it immediately. But would you have figured out the meaning anyway? I’m sure you would.
And there’s another problem that’s worth thinking about: some people think apostrophes are ugly. Playwright Bernard Shaw hated the apostrophes in contractions like can’t and don’t, and he had enough clout to get his way much of the time.
4. If you’re smart about apostrophes, does that make you a good writer?
Not necessarily. (Sigh.) I started this column by talking about John Richards, the founder of The Apostrophe Protection Society. Recently he announced that he’d given up on apostrophes, and was going to turn his attention elsewhere. “The use of the comma is appalling,” he said. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”
There should have been a comma after websites: “When I read some newspaper websites, they just don’t understand what it is used for.”
My advice: beware of setting yourself up as the last defense post against bad English!