Many academics argue that the modern “repurposing” of punctuation is part of a natural linguistic progression, and that our texters are, in reality, paying very close attention to the details of language. Photo: Getty
David Dodwell
David Dodwell

Smartphones and WhatsApp leave the apostrophe in a sad state of decline – but at least it still has its protectors

  • Signs around the world still misuse the apostrophe and texters disregard it completely. But at least the Apostrophe Protection Society has recently reversed its decision to fold following a surge in interest
I was poised this week to don a black armband and go into mourning – not over Britain’s Brexit election, Donald Trump’s impeachment or Hong Kong’s political crisis, but over the rumoured death of the Apostrophe Protection Society.

Since 2001, the former subeditor (and confessed pedant) John Richards of Boston, Lincolnshire, in England, has waged a wilful battle against the chronic misuse and painful abuse of that most delicate of the English language’s pieces of punctuation, the apostrophe.

Last week, aged 96, he said he was throwing in the towel: “We ... have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” He complained that too many people, quite unaware of when an apostrophe should be used and when not, were “sprinkling it about where they feel it looks nice”.

I confess that I was one of a tiny band of pedants who signed up to the society in 2001, despite the fact that, soon after, he won a perverse kind of fame by appearing in a calendar of Britain’s dullest men – just behind the head of the UK’s Roundabout Appreciation Society.

I suspect a large proportion of the world’s subeditors have in recent years shared Richards’ pain, not just because of grammatical laxity, but because the ascent of email and texting on WhatsApp has created a relentless demand for speed and brevity, profoundly threatening the apostrophe.

Among them was the renowned author Keith Waterhouse, who created the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe (AAAA). There was also the militant Apostrophe Abolition Army, disavowed by Waterhouse because their declared aim was, according to Waterhouse, “to stamp out the now universal use of 'it's' for the possessive 'its' by blowing up offending printing plants?”

Waterhouse insisted the AAAA had two simple goals, beyond stopping the rot in English grammar: “to round up and confiscate superfluous apostrophes from, for example, fruit and vegetable stalls where potato's, tomatoe's and apple's are openly on sale … [and] to redistribute as many as possible of these impounded apostrophes, restoring [them] where they have been lost, mislaid or deliberately hijacked – as for instance by British Rail, which as part of its refurbishment programme is dismantling the apostrophes from such stations as King's Cross and shunting them off at dead of night to a secret apostrophe siding at Crewe.”

Falling standards of English should concern us all

It seems there are many reasons for the unremitting abuse of the apostrophe. It starts with the way in which most English speakers learn their grammar. Most do not rely on rigorous English language teachers, but more on a lifetime’s random use. For those who read rather few books – or nowadays rely on the grammatical anarchy of WhatsApp abbreviations and emojis – it is hardly surprising that placement of apostrophes has become a highly approximate affair.

Bill Bryson, who despite his marvellous humour is equally marvellously pedantic, has little patience: “The apostrophe is more or less useless. It’s a very recent invention anyway. It’s only about a couple of hundred years that it has been in regular use.”
Is even thinking about the apostrophe a waste of time? Photo: Shutterstock

I feel more sympathy than Bryson for the plight of the apostrophe, and its importance, with three distinct rules of use: to stand in for missing letters (“isn’t”, instead of “is not”); to indicate possession (“my daughter’s cat”); and never to stand in for plurals (“tattoo’s”, “no dog’s allowed”, “diamond’s are forever”).

As for importance, look only at the bizarre crisis in Ghana this year, when there was a big row over changing the national holiday of Founder’s Day to Founders’ Day. When Founder’s Day was created, in 2009, the intention was to celebrate Kwame Nkrumah as founder of the country when it became independent in 1957.

A new president and his party this year decided that the country had more than a single founder to thank for their independence. Hence the need to move the apostrophe to Founders’ Day.

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There is no denying that there are sometimes some confusing options: should a book written by Charles Dickens be Dickens’, or Dickens’s? Should a play written by Euripides be Euripides’ or Euripides’s? Do we have a Foreign Correspondent’s Club or a Foreign Correspondents’ Club?

But most of the time, proper placement of the apostrophe is straightforward and helpful. As Professor Roslyn Petelin at University of Queensland in Australia argues: “Its correct use avoids bewilderment, confusion, consternation, and irritation,” noting at the same time that “punctuation is about two-thirds rule and one-third taste.”

For the record, it’s “Foreign Correspondents' Club”, not “Correspondent’s”. Photo: Reuters

It is the “taste” bit that often creates the arguments. Many of the pedants out there use their complaints as a kind of intellectual power play, insinuating that misuse of apostrophes, or other tricky punctuation like split infinitives, semicolons, adverbs (like “their” and “there”) or even the simple comma, suggests that the misuser is dumb.

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But many academics argue that the modern “repurposing” of punctuation is part of a natural linguistic progression, and that our texters are, in reality, paying very close attention to the details of language. Note the discussions over the difference between a text message that ends with a full stop, and one that does not. Or the difference in meaning between one exclamation mark or two.

There are practical matters, too. Modern in-car satellite navigation systems cope very badly with apostrophes – as a result of which, those responsible for naming English streets are in increasing numbers dropping apostrophes completely.

In the end, I haven’t needed my black armband. Richards has decided not, after all, to assassinate his cherished Apostrophe Protection Society. His website crashed after the announcement of his plan to close it, with a “600-fold increase in demand”. It is now under reconstruction, and promises to reopen, refurbished and reenergised in January, to every pedant’s delight.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view