The apostrophe’s last stand?

Does this ill-used, maligned punctuation mark stand a chance? Does it deserve to?

Of all the things to exercise the human race, the use of the apostrophe must surely come low down the list. And yet… the language used to describe reactions to its use, its misuse, and its non-use suggest otherwise.


An article in The Telegraph for example, back in 2009, reported Birmingham City Council’s decision to dispense with the apostrophe in signs for place names – on the grounds that it would create greater consistency and avoid costs and confusion. The costs, it seems, were caused by ‘time-consuming queries from local pedants’ (this was the expression used in the article), and the confusion by deciding when to use this troublesome punctuation mark. The article referred to the reaction of John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society who, as might be expected, regarded the decision as ‘absolute defeatism’ and a blow to teachers ‘trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation.’ Children would now, he claimed, ‘go around Birmingham and see utter chaos.’ This was, of course, before the riots of August 2011. A spokesman for Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, said that she would be ‘heartbroken’ to learn of the council’s decision.


If Birmingham City Council’s decision set hearts breaking, I imagine Kill the Apostrophe might have caused some fatalities. The argument is that the apostrophe serves ‘only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.’ Microsoft Word has just inserted the apostrophe in ‘dont’ in this piece of writing and I have had to go back to delete it as the case for killing the apostrophe is written entirely without apostrophes. I have to admit that their absence does not make the article any less difficult to read or understand and the arguments are, on the whole, persuasive.


Implicit in the arguments for the preservation of the apostrophe are two lines of reasoning that are difficult to support. One is that standards are falling – there once was a golden age when everyone was taught how to write ‘correctly’ and did so; the other is that language is fixed – there is ‘correct grammar and punctuation’. The first is just plain wrong: there never was a golden age – for punctuation or anything else. The other is mistaken – language and the use of language develops and changes all the time. If that wasn’t the case then there would, for example, be no need to produce new versions of dictionaries and l’Académie française would not have fought a losing battle to preserve the French language.


Interesting that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, revised 3rd edition, 1998) takes a far less emotional approach than either the preservationists or the abolitionists. It outlines the introduction of the apostrophe in the 16th century to denote the omission of a letter or letters, the singular possessive towards the end of the 17th century and the plural possessive a century later, and refers to ‘gross disturbances’ since then, concluding that ‘such instability suggests that further disturbances may be expected in the 21st century.’


One of the examples of change in Fowler’s Modern English Usage is the abandonment of the apostrophe by many businesses, including Barclays, Citizens Advice and Mothers Pride. But visit the Mothers Pride website and you find that the company might have dispensed with the apostrophe in their name but are unsure about what to do with it elsewhere. In describing their history, they refer to the ‘1970s’ but a little later to the ‘1960’s and 1970’s’. This could be hedging their bets but more likely it’s about ignoring the importance of consistency. In fact, neither use is wrong but, as Fowler gently advises: ‘the apostrophe is now best omitted in such circumstances.’


This demonstrates one of the weaknesses of the preservationists’ arguments – that is, they believe that the rules are uncomplicated. Take a look at Fowler or at the informative article on Wikipedia about apostrophes and you will see that this is not the case. If you also look at the Plain English Campaign’s guidance you will see that, as Devon County Council states a little naively in its admirable  Plain English Guide ‘the rules for using apostrophes are surprisingly simple.’ Then take a trip over to the Plain English Campaign’s article Protect your livelihood with plain language and you find this:

‘Even in our daily routine lives, when peoples’ incomes are being eroded by economic recession…’

Well, we all make mistakes but this does tend to support the Kill the Apostrophe argument that misuse or absence of the apostrophe rarely gets in the way of meaning and that the heat generated is more about snobbery than understanding.


For all this, I wouldn’t want to abandon the apostrophe. Do we get rid of everything that is problematic in language? Not content with sending the apostrophe to Coventry, Kill the Apostrophe begins to stray into other areas of language to propose changes to spelling (plural z) to compensate for possible confusion resulting from the demise of the apostrophe. And this is where angels should fear to tread. You tamper with one aspect of language and all kinds of unintended consequences follow. Better that language should evolve, as it will do anyway whatever we try to impose, and undergo the gross disturbances referred to earlier.


They will come principally from the way we use online technologies. For some of the sanest debate, have a look at the blogs at I-COM about search engine optimization (SEO) and apostrophes. Even the Apostrophe Protection Society may approve.

One thought on “The apostrophe’s last stand?

  1. Hi William – let’s have a discussion about the Birmingham City COuncil another time and meanhile – Mary gave me your web address – the website looks great. I will forward your link to a few people I know who may be interested in the the debate.

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