The world’s most endangered things include elephants in Africa, tigers in India, and apostrophes in England. For such a small punctuation mark, the apostrophe has generated great confusion and debate, and some grammarians argue it’s time to let the apostrophe go the way of the dodo bird.
Linguists see evidence of the apostrophe’s decline, and text messaging may have slackened its use. But auto-correct programs and editors continue to insert the small swoosh, preserving what dictionary.com says may be “the most misunderstood punctuation mark in English.”
Grammar guides say the apostrophe is necessary to show possession or missing letters. Without it, how could we tell “we’ll” from “well” or “Mark’s” from “Marks?” But learning the nuances of its usage can be complicated.
On the BBC radio program Cutting a Dash, David Denison, University of Manchester professor of linguistics, explained why people find apostrophe rules difficult to learn. “The apostrophe is different from a lot of other irregularities in language which are difficult to master in that it is entirely artificial,” he said. “It’s an invention effectively of printers and bears no correspondence to the spoken word.” He sees the tendency to put one where it doesn’t belong as “a sign that it’s dying.”
The format of cell phone keyboards seems to discourage apostrophe use altogether. Gabe Doyle, a doctoral candidate in linguistics and author of the blog “Motivated Grammar” says he texts the words “Ill” instead of “I’ll” and “well” instead of “we’ll” because “getting apostrophes in the message requires you to press a complicated combination of buttons, and I’m really not that dexterous.”
The website Kill the Apostrophe encourages dropping it: “Language evolves by the actions of individual users. So all you have to do to push the cause of killing the apostrophe is simply to start omitting it in your writing.”
But when I tried that tactic, my smart phone came to the apostrophe’s defense. It automatically changed “Sallys” to “Sally’s” and “cant” to “can’t.” Though it did not catch every apostrophe error, it came close—the company Nuance has worked on the “Smart Editor” for phones, a technology that looks at the context of words to detect mistakes and suggest changes. Denison spoke on Cutting a Dash more than a decade ago, but he appears to have been prophetic when he predicted, “Increasingly people will get their apostrophes put back in, even if they leave them out.”
Though autocorrect will insert apostrophes to show possession, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names takes them out when naming geographic locations. “The possessive form using an ‘s’ is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed,” the board’s FAQ page explains. Normally, removing an apostrophe from a possessive would cause an English teacher to cringe, but it’s against U.S. policy to use them in names like Pikes Peak.
The nuances in apostrophe rules make some students want to give up on learning them, and grammar handbooks contradict each other. When it comes to making abbreviations, letters, and numbers plural, the grammar handbook Woe is I says, “No two authorities seem to agree.” The book’s author, Patricia T. O’Conner, voices the thought of many students when she concludes, “frankly, we have better things to worry about.”
But John Richards, founder of the U.K.’s Apostrophe Protection Society, does worry. His society has sent people letters pointing out mistakes and providing the correct apostrophe usage. According to the group’s website, he founded the society in 2001 “with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much-abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language.”