The Death of the Apostrophe

A number of the articles in the ‘Unintentional Humor’ section are here because of the incorrect use (or lack of use) of the apostrophe. This is a simple, yet much misused, grammatical device that has a vital role in making writing unambiguous. Its death was spurred on this week because a society dedicated to preserving the correct use of the apostrophe shut down.

Declaring that "ignorance has won", the founder announced: “With regret I have decided to close the Apostrophe Protection Society”. The reason he cited is that “fewer organizations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English Language."

Retired journalist John Richards started the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 to make sure the “much-abused” punctuation mark was being used correctly. He started the society after seeing the "same mistakes over and over again" and hoped he would find half a dozen people who felt the same way.

"I didn't find half a dozen people," he said on his website. "Instead, within a month of my plaint appearing in a national newspaper, I received over 500 letters of support, not only from all corners of the United Kingdom, but also from America, Australia, France, Sweden, Hong Kong and Canada."

The simple and straightforward rules Mr Richards gave for the use of apostrophes are:

  • They are used to denote a missing letter or letters.
  • They are used to denote possession.
  • Apostrophes are never ever used to denote plurals.

I remember that the New York Times, of all people, used to create plurals of abbreviations by using an apostrophe. That means that the plural of CEO would become CEO’s, which indicates possession. This becomes confusing in a headline like “CEO’s retirement plans under attack”, which could either mean the retirement plans of  one CEO or a government action affecting CEO retirement plans generally. Fortunately they apparently changed their style rulebook to conform with proper, unambiguous, grammatical usage, and I hope we don’t now see them slide back.

The most confusing apostrophe rule is when to use “its” or “it’s”. In fact, the rule is simple: "It's" is only correct as a contraction of "it is", and an apostrophe would not be correct even in the possessive form. The most common and jarring is the use of your for you‘re. "You're" means "you are", and should not be confused with "your", despite sounding the same.

John Roberts’ final comment was: “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.” The apostrophe is an important tool if you want to write clearly, and while language is constantly fluctuating and evolving as usage changes, I very much hope, to misquote Mark Twain slightly that “reports of its death are greatly exaggerated”!