Friday, December 13, 2013

Is it time to kill the apostrophe?

Connie Eble is the consummate grammar nerd, the sort of person who punctuates her text messages and uses semi-colons correctly, even though she considers them pretentious. As an English professor at UNC Chapel Hill, she has spent more than four decades fixing grammar mistakes in student papers.

So Eble’s feelings about apostrophes may come as a surprise. She thinks its time we got rid of them.

See what I did there? If you are among the dwindling number of Americans who use apostrophes correctly, you probably twitched reading that last paragraph. You knew the its was missing the apostrophe that signaled a contraction of it and is. Still, you knew what I meant.

And that’s why Eble, who’s a linguist, argues that apostrophes are useless. “Do you ever have to stop someone and say, Did you mean possessive when you said its?” she asks. No, you never do. The context makes it clear.

When Eble first explained her stance to me, I admit to grammar-geek shock. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If we officially dropped apostrophes, English teachers would save untold hours. Phrases such as daily special’s would die a quiet death.

Fueled by texting, the anti-apostrophe movement seems to be gaining momentum, especially in Britain, where some retailers, including the bookseller Waterstones, have dropped their apostrophes. The people in charge of are British, though it should be said that England is also home to the Apostrophe Protection Society. Apostrophe opinions run strong across the pond.

The Apostrophe Protection Society’s chairman argues that apostrophes are sometimes essential for clarity. True, the sentence Residents refuse to be placed in bins would be less ambiguous with an apostrophe after the s in residents. We’d have to adjust to reading hell and Ill as he’ll and I’ll. Plural possessives could be tricky.

But punctuation is supposed to convey information, and Eble argues that apostrophes convey precious little. A misused apostrophe, however, tells us the writer was either careless or unable to master grammar rules. It gives us grammar sticklers a reason to look down on others.

Will we see the demise of the apostrophe in our lifetime? I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows? Language changes. Hyphen use, for instance, is definitely on the decline. Fig-leaf is now usually fig leaf, while pigeon-hole has become pigeonhole. The New York Times recently dropped the hyphen in email.

Once, long ago, apostrophes, like the appendix, served a purpose. I won’t go into their complicated evolution. But more grammarians do seem to be making the point playwright George Bernard Shaw made a century ago. “There is not the faintest reason,” he wrote in 1902, “for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”


Willy Loman said...

Yup.....more dumbing down for people that never learned the skill, or never cared. Yes, it makes sense....because it's not fair to the "dumbed down" errrrrr, the kids that never payed attention or simply just didn't have the cognitive capacity to learn. Why should they be discriminated against when it would just be so much easier to get rid of apostrophes? It's not fair that some people seem so much smarter than others, and use proper grammar and spelling, while others simply don't. Let's even things out. Sound familiar?....there seems to be a LOT of it going around these days.

Anonymous said...

Why not just continue the dumbing down of Americans. We have already pretty much done away with differentiating among past, present, and future tense. Many people have stopped using capitalization and punctuation altogether. Children are no longer taught to read and write cursive. I guess they will have to take the government's word for what the Constitution and other early historical documents say. Most people think that ten times more and ten times as many mean the same thing. Only pompous geeks need to know the language. It's not important.

Anonymous said...

I was having a good day until I read this horrifying piece. Perhaps Orwell was correct in 1984when he wrote of "Newspeak." Eventually language will be broken down to the lowest common denominator, and all nuance, inflection, and intelligence will be lost. I will be the last holdout and cheerleader for the Oxford comma and the apostrophe. You will have to pry them from my cold, dead hands. Metaphorically, of course.

Garth Vader said...

Why aren't these mistakes caught in elementary school? Because government schools are hiring teachers who don't know proper English themselves.

Anonymous said...

@Willy Loman....I'm a grammarian so I must comment on your post. You said, "Yup.....more dumbing down for people that never learned the skill, or never cared." That's grammatically incorrect. Your sentence should read, "Yup.....more dumbing down for people WHO never learned the skill, or never cared." Also, "payed" is not a word. The correct word you should have used is "paid". It's not fair that some people seem so much smarter than others, and use proper grammar and spelling, while others simply don't.

Anonymous said...

I've written for a living for 40 years, and my guiding principle has always been that writing is communicating. How can I best get across the information, the mood, the tone, the emotion, that I want, rules be damned? That often makes English teachers cringe.

Now, with that long-winded caveat, to this story I say - baloney. You can't effectively break the rules to communicate if you don't know the rules to start with. Or if there are no rules.

I daily read stuff in The Observer (which, sad to say, is better than most newspapers) that makes me cringe. I read things that demonstrate that the writers don't even know the meanings of the words they're using. Example: "he advocates for..." so and so, a wretched redundancy that shows the writer doesn't know that "advocate" by definition is to support or work for something. Daily, a half dozen times, I read in The Observer that a car "collided" with a telephone pole or guardrail or something. Well, only if the telephone pole were moving toward the car, since collision is the striking of moving objects approaching each other. I read silly, mindless word and phrase fads, such as "bespoken" (a big one in the last year) and the atrocious "gone missing," when the writer means (one word, more forceful and direct) "disappeared" or "vanished." I have watched the verbanizing (ok, I just made that up) of nouns such as "gifted" when the writer means "gave." That, by the way, is a beautiful example of public-relations flacks creating a word. It appears to have first appeared in Belk ads about 10 years ago, and now, newspaper writers commonly use it. Incidentally, I was a reporter and covered the phenomenon when the Charlotte Chamber decided downtown should be "uptown" because it sounded more upbeat. Don't believe the rationalization that downtown is actually up, in a terrain sense. That was a lie invented to justify the change. And now I have to constantly explain to out-of-towners that uptown is actually downtown. I read in dismay as reporters in The Observer and elsewhere allow marketing euphemisms to creep into daily use, such as "harvesting" (if you mean killing, say so) wildlife.

My point is this, and it's simple: Language is the journalist's (note the correct use of the apostrophe) tool, and it reflects his or her professionalism and credibility. Would you trust a carpenter who doesn't know how to use a hammer to build your house?

Anonymous said...

Say it aint so. (See what I did there?) Geneva Highfill, my 10th grade English teacher is spinning in her grave. Where is James Kilpatrick when we need them? Also spinning in his grave.

Anonymous said...


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