Kill the Apostrophe? Rubbish! Keep it!

Kill the ApostropheA site has popped up with one of the stupidest ideas about English I’ve read in the past decade or two. It’s called Kill the Apostrophe. Subtle.

At first, I thought it was a joke, a spoof. After all, how can one realistically get rid of perhaps the most significant element of punctuation based on the rantings of a website lunatic? And some of the counterpoint sites like Humbleapostrophe seemed created in a sense of camaraderie humour.

But no, on further reading, it’s as real as any of the other wingnut sites, from chemtrails to “psychic” readings to UFOs. Most of which just add to the background noise online, rather than contributing to something useful or encouraging public engagement.

The site’s author writes,

This website is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.

Well, it may confuse poorly-educated and illiterate people, or even ESL learners new to the task, but that’s really just a minority. Most of us understand that when Fats Waller wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ he included the apostrophes for a reason (and didn’t mean to have his title changed to “Am Not Misbehaving’ by anti-apostrophe-ites).

We know Bob Dylan didn’t mean to sing, “It is not any use in turning on your lights, babe” or even “It aint no use in turning…” When you drop the apostrophe, you have to replace the missing letters the apostrophe represents, otherwise you’re just making spelling mistakes. Egregious ones at that.

Clearly the author of this website was stung by a rebuke from someone over misuse, and feels pouty.

Kill the Apostrophe claims the punctuation is redundant, wasteful, “one more tool of snobbery,” “timeconsuming” (sic – apparently hyphens are snobbery too),”impede communication and understanding” and “a distraction for otherwise reasonable and intelligent people.

What a load of codswallop. It’s like a four-year old having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to have a nap. He’s not sleepy. We’re being mean to him. He wants to play with his friends. He doesn’t like lima beans. Wah, wah, wah.

Stop whining and educate yourself. English is tough, sure. Suck it up.

What are you planning to do – rewrite Shakespeare? The Bard used apostrophes for contractions and omissions in every play. For example:

’tis – it is
ope – open
o’er – over
gi’ – give
ne’er – never
i’ – in
e’er – ever
oft – often
a’ – he
e’en – even

What, you’d change Hamlet’s words to Horatio from

Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man
As e’er my conversation coped withal.


Horatio, thou art even as just a man
As ever my conversation coped withal.

What about this scene from As You Like It:

Oh, thou did’st then ne’er love so heartily.
If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou has not loved.
Of if thou has’t not sat as I do now,
Wearying they hearer in thy mistress’s praise,
Thou has not loved.

The apostrophe tells actors to pronounce ne’er as “neh-ehr” not “near.”

Even the CBC weighed in on the issue, although sensationalizing as is their wont:

Probably only in Quebec will you hear someone swear: “Sainte-Apostrophe”! But many Canadians consider the apostrophe kind of sacred.

Sacred? Hyperbole. Necessary, defensible, appropriate and proper, yes.

Can you imagine what the Irish would do if they had no apostrophes? Would they write Obrien and Omalley or OBrien and OMally? (That wonky, silly mis-capitalization was wearily camp after Apple’s first phone) Hyphenate them into O-Brien and O-Malley? Just to be clear – the apostrophe is already an imposition from English into Gaelic to replace a diacritical mark not common in English typography (see here and here) but we’re stuck with it.

This apostrophe furor isn’t a new issue. People have been trying to change English – its spelling, grammar and punctuation – for centuries. Samuel Johnson attempted, in his 1755 dictionary to standardize spelling. But he wasn’t an advocate for any ideology: he just wanted it to be consistent. It wouldn’t be, despite his efforts, until the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1884.*

Punctuation is, in the 5,200-year history of writing, modestly recent. The earliest civilizations didn’t always use anything to indicate pauses, stops, clauses (or even vowels in many languages). Makes it a bit difficult to translate. Does “Sit scriptor manducare avia” mean “Let’s eat Grandma” or “Let’s eat, Grandma”? World of difference between them.

Bright Hub Education tells this story about the importance of punctuation:

Once the Czar of Russia condemned a man to death. The Czar sent an order to the jailer ‘Pardon Impossible. To be executed.’ The Czarina, who had a soft corner for the prisoner, changed the place of the full stop from after the word impossible to before it and the order stood as ‘Pardon. Impossible to be executed.’ And the prisoner was saved from execution. This small story explains the importance of punctuation very well.

Let me add this one about the $2-million comma: a legal battle between telecom corps Rogers and Aliant was fought over a single comma. As Legal Writing Pro notes,**

In a recent Canadian contract dispute over stringing utility poles, the stringer—Aliant Inc.—wanted out of the deal after the price of pole stringing skyrocketed. Under the contract, the stringer first had to give a year’s notice—but could it give notice before the contract’s first term ended? More than $2 million Canadian were at stake. And you guessed it, the case turned on a single comma.

Apostrophe joke

Punctuation matters. Writers as far back at the 9th century BCE wrestled with ways to identify at the very least where a sentence ended and someone had to take a breath. Something you need to know when reciting a book-length poem like The Iliad.

This was important for speakers, given that the literacy level was generally low and most people learned from hearing instead of reading. As George Bernard Shaw noted, punctuation was developed to identify stops and pauses for speakers. But Shaw was an anti-apostrophite, as Slate Magazine wrote earlier this year:

Take George Bernard Shaw. The author and playwright at some point decided to use apostrophes in contractions only when failing to do so would create a different, familiar word, or homograph—I’ll and Ill, for instance. In 1902, he wrote of apostrophes, “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

It really took the invention of printing to push Europeans to develop a standardized method of punctuating. But, what with nationalities, languages and politics, there wasn’t much coherency or consistency until the mid-late 19th century. Today, the punctuation in an un-modernized edition of Dickens, Austen, Swift or Sterne can seem oddly eccentric or excessive. Shakespeare’s punctuation is quite different from ours. Machiavelli wrote such run-on sentences that you can barely read them aloud without fainting for lack of oxygen.***

All of this merely underscores a vital, dynamic and evolving language. Punctuation evolved as the technology and literacy evolved. What was once elitist grew to become populist. Let’s not turn back that clock.

In great part, standardization of punctuation and grammar came with the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884) which opened an era of style books and grammarian guides. Because of this rather late adoption, some elements – like the apostrophe – have ambiguous roles. It acts as a single quotation mark, a contraction, and a possessive.

As Slate Magazine points out, author Lynne Truss, in her delightfully grumpy book, Eats Shoots and Leaves, gives us the brief history of the apostrophe:

In her 2006 best-seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss lays out a brief history of the apostrophe’s usage in the English language—its original, sole use as a signifier of omitted letters during the 16th century, its use in possessives beginning in the 17th century, the development of plural possessive use a century later,

If you haven’t read Truss’s book (not Truss’ – see this, clarified here), you owe it to yourself. While her main thrust is the proper use of grammar and punctuation, it’s also very funny and unapologetic in her defence of proper form. Besides, you will learn things in an entertaining way.

It’s not really difficult for anyone who paid attention to Miss Cratchet’s fourth-grade English to understand the apostrophe, no more than the distinction between homonyms (they’re, their and there, for example). All it takes is the expenditure of a tiny amount of grey matter to understand how an apostrophe is properly used. But, it seems, in modern society that is aggressively against thinking too hard, that’s too elitist and intellectual.****

Language evolves. It doesn’t change by autocratic dictate, like some mayor-with-a-Napoleon-complex telling council how to vote while scanning their emails to make sure they comply. It changes according to usage, time and technology. English is like tofu: an eclectic language that transforms and absorbs in the crucible of use.

Sure, we will make mistakes. It’s better to occasionally mix up it’s, or write 1980′s instead of 1980s, and be corrected than to have the confusion carved into our language by the abolition of the apostrophe. Corrections make us better, smarter writers.****

The Apostrophe Protection Society understands this and comments, somewhat apologetically:

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, but are just reminding all writers of English text, whether on notices or in documents of any type, of the correct usage of the apostrophe should you wish to put right mistakes you may have inadvertently made.

The apostrophe will disappear where it isn’t needed, as it did when omnibus dropped to ‘bus then finally just bus. Until the 19th century, apostrophes separated a plural “s” in foreign words ending in a vowel (e.g. folio’s). So if you’re worried that your head can’t “get around” apostrophes, just wait a century or two and they’ll probably change on their own without need to create supercilious websites about eliminating them.

And join us for National Grammar Day, next March 4. Just be polite when making your corrections of errant apostrophes.
* In the USA, Noah Webster was a far more effective and zealous advocate for spelling reform through his 1828 dictionary, but at least part of that can be attributed to national sentiment: the fledgling nation wanting to break free from British conventions in all manner possible. In case you wonder, Webster’s wasn’t the first American dictionary. That honour (or honor if you’re a Websterite) goes to Samuel Johnson, in 1798. But not the same one who wrote the 1755 dictionary. Same name, no relation. Oddly coincidental. But this reforming zeal led to some incredible official stupidity. As this site points out:

Pikes Peak, named after explorer Zebulon Pike, lost its apostrophe in 1891. That was the year that the newly formed U.S. Board on Geographic Names declared that the “possessive form using an ‘s’ is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed.

One can only shake one’s head in bemusement. But here in Canada, corporations have shown similar stupidity, bowing to Quebec’s myopic language laws and ungrammatically removing the apostrophe from their corporate names: Tim Horton’s became Tim Hortons, Loblaw’s became Loblaw. Our own Geographic Board in the 19th century blindly (and equally stupidly) followed the American model, removing apostrophes from place names: Hudson’s Bay became Hudson Bay.

** Note the other cases regarding legal battles over commas in the same article. The apostrophe has seen its own court challenges. Mondaq notes one in Florida that cost a defendant a settlement.

*** The Greeks had developed a method of punctuation in the 5th century BCE, but the Romans didn’t start using one until the 1st century BCE (reading a Roman inscription can be tough because they often don’t even have spaces between words, let alone punctuation). Then there’s a long gap while Christians fumbled around with some method to punctuate the Bible because it was meant to be read aloud to the congregation. Of course, it was read in Latin, which most of the listeners didn’t speak, but that was a minor matter. They didn’t settle on anything consistent until after printing was developed and typesetters joined the discussion. In 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger, stated that “the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax.” Still is. Good article about the history of the apostrophe in the MIT Technology Review, 2010. It links to this article on 17th century punctuation.

**** The complexities and inconsistencies of English are a challenge that makes us smarter. They teach us to understand and appreciate a wider range of context and content (the “let’s eat, grandma” versus “let’s eat grandma” distinction). Having to learn and master any complex system makes us smarter because it exercises our brains. Reducing it merely dumbs us down. Literacy democratizes us, allows us to share in the content and join the dialogue without class distinction. Reductionists want to return us to the time when literate elites lorded over an illiterate society. Very Orwellian.