An elegy for the apostrophe, and a defense thereof (in a manner of speakin’.)

Henry Hitchings suggests that my crusade to make students understand the correct use of the apostrophe may put me on the wrong side of history.  He says the apostrophe vexed printers and writers who were confused about its application almost from the time of its invention in the sixteenth century, through its proliferation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture:

[C]ontrary to what defenders of the apostrophe imagine, its status has long been moot.Before the seventeenth century the apostrophe was rare. The Parisian printer Geoffroy Tory promoted it in the 1520s, and it first appeared in an English text in 1559.

Initially the apostrophe was used to signify the omission of a sound. Gradually it came to signify possession. This possessive use was at first confined to the singular. However, writers were inconsistent in their placing of the punctuation mark, and in the eighteenth century, as print culture burgeoned, everything went haywire. Although it seemed natural to use an apostrophe in the possessive plural, authorities, such as the grammarian Robert Lowth, argued against this. In a volume entitled “Grammatical Institutes” (1760), John Ash went so far as to say that the possessive apostrophe “seems to have been introduced by mistake.”

By the time Ash was writing, the apostrophe was being used to form plurals.Among those who did this was the typographer Michael Mattaire. In a grammar he brought out in 1712 he suggested that the correct plural of species was species’s. Some rival grammarians could barely contain their rage in the face of such recommendations. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the experts (all self-appointed) urgently debated the mark’s correct application.

.       .       .       .       .       .

[H]ere’s the rub: say any of these names aloud and you’ll be struck by the fact that the apostrophe works on the eye rather than the ear. Simply put, we don’t hear apostrophes, and this is a significant factor accounting for the inconsistency with which they are used.  Apostrophes can present important distinctions. For instance, compare the innocuousness of the statement “My sister’s boyfriend’s coming” and the social awkwardness implicit in “My sisters’ boyfriend’s coming.” Yet pragmatists would argue that such a distinction, rather than being marked with a single little squiggle, needs amplifying.

Up on my high horse again!

The aural nature of useful punctuation is an interesting point–but I’d argue that we don’t clearly hear most punctuation in spoken English.  Aside from inflecting our voices upward when asking a question, or adding urgency and volume to a sentence punctuated by an exclamation point, I think most of us would be hard-pressed to hear the difference that punctuation makes.  (What’s the aural difference between a semi-colon and a period?  Did you just hear that em-dash?  Or that one?)  It seems to me that punctuation was intended to help us translate the inflections of spoken English to the page, rather than the other way around, but that’s just my guess.  (Readers, please correct me if you know otherwise.) 

The apostrophe, when employed correctly, offers helpful clarification on the page about the relationship between some nouns and other nouns, as well as a useful abbreviation for interpreting spoken language (she’s versus she is, for example.)  And for those reasons, as well as my natural inclination to pedantry, I’ll continue to saddle up and ride to battle for the apostrophe.  After all, how would you know I’m a cowgirl if I didn’t tell you by occasionally droppin’ some gees and replacin’ ’em with apostrophes?  Yippee-kai-yai-yay!

34 thoughts on “An elegy for the apostrophe, and a defense thereof (in a manner of speakin’.)

  1. The apostrophe is of least value in possessives where, as noted, it corresponds to nothing at all in our spoken language. (Let me rephrase that: in our spoken language we have no need to distinguish between the ‘sisters boyfriend’ examples, so why would we think it useful or even necessary to distinguish between them for writing?) But you are correct, punctuation is not about sound or speech anyway; we do not pronounce capital letters, either, but only hard-core emailers ever suggest eliminating them.

    Your point about the usefulness of apostrophes in contractions is important, and it’s probably worth noting that few people ever get apostrophes wrong in contractions.

    And, indeed, that’s what’s most interesting about this whole issue: the debate about the apostrophe is all about people who get it “wrong”: which happens often in possessives, but not often in contractions.

    The most important function of all grammatical correctness judgments is to define an ‘in-crowd’ of folks who ‘get it right’ and an ‘other’ group of people who ‘get it wrong.’ Those who desire to eliminate the apostrophe only want to grant more access to the particular ‘in-group’ of ‘educated writers’ but, in the end, it will probably be impossible to eliminate the existence of both in-groups and their gatekeepers, no matter how much we try to tweak the entrance requirements for the ‘educated writers’ in-group. (And one should note that the entrance requirements for this group have always been evolving!)


  2. “it’s probably worth noting that few people ever get apostrophes wrong in contractions.”

    As a teacher of writing, I can only say that I wish this were true. It’s not.

    I’d also argue that the most important function of grammar isn’t creating an “in-crowd” and then excluding others. It’s about creating a legible system of signs and patterns so that people can communicate with each other. Getting rid of the apostrophe doesn’t grant more access or get rid of grammar: it just creates a new rule to replace the old.


  3. I agree with H’ann that punctuation serves to help us see what we might hear. The apostrophe with possessives is probably one of the trickiest, but most useful. I had a boss when I worked as a secretary who helped me figure out it/its/ it’s, and I am forever grateful to him for that!
    And I would add to Dr C that getting rid of the apostrophe might make writing simpler, but would make understanding each other more difficult. Ask those who work in fields where texts have minimal punctuation!


  4. I agree that apostrophes can be very helpful, despite the widespread misuse. A lot of the abuse seems to occur in signs, and so often people add one to a plural word – that always seems counter-intuitive to me, why would anyone add unnecessary punctuation? For some amusing and egregious examples, see Apostrophe Abuse:


  5. I’m still pinned down behind a rock in the war on the excess (and eggregious) use of quotation marks, as in the (invariably) black crayon on gray cardboard sign pinned behind the cash register at the diner that says <>. One longs to hear irony, or at least wit, in this practice, as if hamburgers are a constructed and increasingly contested category of food culture (o.k., maybe they are) but what it really does is replace a double underline beneath the word that the waitstaff wants to emphasize. This habit has become contagious out there. Also not too crazy about students writing “colonist” as if its a plural form, although this does not really fall under punctuation.


  6. Sorry, my sign got eaten up into a in the last post. The sign in question says: Customers Should Not Order “Hamburgers” Before Noon… (I didn’t want to use quotation marks both within and around the selected example).


  7. We use fewer apostrophes than the Victorians. Lewis Carroll, for example, writes “sha’n’t” when he’s abbreviating “shall not” since he’s contracting in two places. We’ll write “shan’t” which has no justification at all. (Firefox put a red line under “sha’n’t” but accepted “shan’t”; suppressing the apostrophe altogether — “shant” — the red line comes back.)


  8. They can have my apostrophe when they take it from my cold, dead hands. And they’d better apply it correctly or I will come back as a zombie to wreak my revenge.

    Seriously, apostrophe misuse is one of those errors that makes me cry, especially when students hand in an electronic essay where the word processor system they use helpfully underlines all the erroneous forms. Let’s also not get me started on how few students do any editing at all. For many, an essay’s written in one go, maybe two, with no plan for revision!


  9. The unnecessary use of quotation marks is annoying, I agree. But why does the restaurant put the burden on the customer NOT to order “hamburgers” before noon? Why doesn’t it just write a simple declarative sentence: We do not serve hamburgers before noon. Why blame the “customers” for asking?

    Janice: I’m glad I’m not the only one! And I agree with Dr. Crazy that apostrophes are either not used or misused in contractions, although I agree with Tom that it’s the possessive use that seems to lead to more errors. Most of my students who don’t use apostrophes correctly don’t even have a consistent (if wrong) logic behind their misuse. They seem rather to randomly pepper and salt the page with them.

    I also agree with Dr. Crazy that the non-use of apostrophes is really just a new rule. I think that apostrophes must be very helpful to people who are learning to read and speak English. A comparison: there are marks that are used in Hebrew to signify which vowel sounds one should pronounce that are included in instructional material for beginners, but which aren’t present in Hebrew texts written for fluent readers. It’s really, really difficult to make the leap without the diacritical marks as guides.

    As Susan suggests, one really has to be an expert in a particular time period and language to be able to guess around the paleography of past eras. I feel like I’m getting pretty good at sussing out the abbreviated 18th C Canadian French records that I’m using now–but it’s taken quite a while. I remember trying to teach myself to read 17th C English script, which doesn’t even look like English for a few days until you get used to it. So I’m all for the helpful hints that any punctuation might provide.


  10. I was having a half-heated, half-humorous discussion with one of my students yesterday about his use of apostrophes to form plurals. No no no, was my position. You have too many apostrophes. His reply? “But they’re free!”

    Sometimes I want to hug my students.


  11. As someone who’s fairly pathetic at the correct placement of commas, I should probably just shut up. But I won’t. I’ll second Dr. Crazy and everyone else here who points out that apostrophes make understanding simpler. For that, they do indeed have to be used logically and consistently.

    That’s what’s wrong with the “they’re free” argument. No they aren’t. When I have to double back and read your sentence twice and then three times to figure out what the hell was going on in your head, they you have wasted my precious time. No yippee-kai-yay about that!


  12. I can still remember Miz’ Booth (a math teacher of all things) telling me I had “no understanding whatsoever of the logic of the comma” back in the eighth grade. She was not wrong. I’m also remembering a riotous piece of short baseball fiction probably from the 1920s that revolved around a player with an impossibly long last name, which was abbreviated in newspaper box scores as something like L’h’ss’g’r, or something like that. The body of the story involved all of the ways in which that fact wreaked havoc on the game itself, and how many people could claim they had knocked in three runs for the Detroit Tigers the day before.


  13. Wasn’t the possessive apostrophe originally an example of contraction? I’m thinking of all those renaissance texts that use his or her right next to the noun —- Seneca his Tenne Tragedies jumps to mind —- and that it originally had a very consistent use. I’m ok with going back to renaissance possessives if it means my students will stop salting their essays with apostrophes like it was a tasty snack.


  14. I wonder if this will become moot with technology. I imagine it will eventually be possible to just have everything read aloud by a computer. I already do that with a lot of texts- I learn better by hearing than seeing. Video and audio are already nearly obligatory in journalism, academia can’t be far behind. I can imagine books being replaced by something like the Khan Academy videos.


  15. As a pedant myself, I’d like to second rustonite and sisyphus: the possessive is indeed a contraction of an earlier genitive case, which if I’m not mistaken was often “-as” in Old English, though there were, I hink, others. Though I’m not sure what it became in Middle English, I think it gradually started to fade to just the “-s” sound, until nobody remembered what sound went before it. My guess is the apostrophe was probably introduced by pedants like us to signify that they knew there was once another letter there. 🙂

    Also, Notorious: I too want to hug your student. That’s awesome. 😀


  16. The dilemma I see is the slippage between understanding the rules of punctuation, knowing parts of speech, and “translating” between what is heard and how it’s represented on the page (or the monitor). I cannot count the number of students who employed “would of” for “would’ve.”

    Free apostrophes! Free the commas and periods as well! 🙂


  17. Ugh. “Would of!” How about “for all intensive purposes?”

    Also, I’d like to second Indyanna’s complaint above of students not hearing or comprehending the need for an “s” at the end of “colonist” to make it plural! (What’s up with that one, seriously?)


  18. @Historiann: they hear one “s” in “colonist” sort of near the end of the word and assume that no one would be silly enough to have them spitting out “s” sounds all day by adding another one to form a plural, so that “s” does double duty as a plural for them, I’m guessing.

    I knew the apostrophe was a goner when it was demoted to the secondary keypad on the iPhone and iPad.


  19. Squadrato~ I’ve forwarded that link to two editors I know. Very awesome, ty!

    As an overuser of the comma (way, waaaay beyond the serial comma, arguing the merits of which is apparently enough to bring people to blows), I will stay out of the apostrophe discussion (and pin a print out of Squadrado~’s link above my computer).


  20. I’d point out (as an obnoxious linguist) that many of the modern words we know and love were once “mistakes.” Look at the -ly ending, used to create adverbs. It began life as a noun, “lich,” meaning body, found its way into adjectives like “friendly” (freond-lich, having the body of a friend), and, its original meaning having been ceded to the word “body” (which originally meant “torso”), got worn down into the ending -ly. Are you apostrophe purists going to start demanding that we write friendlich?

    Or, look at the adjective “listless.” It’s derived from the Old English word “lystan”, “to be pleasing” (cognate with German gelüsten, and the source of the modern “to lust.”) So we’re stuck with a word that, on its face, makes us think someone’s forgotten what groceries they need. And we can’t change it to lustless, because that brings up a whole nother set of problems. (Yes, that was on purpose.)

    Language changes. Preserving it is a losing battle. Clinging to things like this just marks you as, well, old- cause thing were better back in your day when kids knew their apostrophes and a malt only cost a nickel.


  21. Wate? R U sayin tht all chng is gud & must nt b resistd?


    I always thought that “-ly” was just the anglicized pronunciation of the Germanic “lich” suffix, so is it really a “mistake?”

    I think scholars should stand for what’s useful rather than unexamined tradition. And I believe the apostrophe is still useful!


  22. Historiann–

    I think Rustonite was, rather, suggesting that a) this change may have already passed us by; and b) you may find it useful but many folks clearly do not find it useful (or else find it useful in ways which you–and others–do not approve of).

    If scholars are mere gatekeepers, we need to acknowledge that role; if “usefulness” is the key criterion, then a huge number of English writers find apostrophes “useful” for plurals.

    And lest I be seen as too liberal by some readers: I personally have a visceral reaction to an apostrophe that’s used in what I believe to be a “wrong” way: but I don’t know if I have ever been truly uncertain about what the writer meant. Quite the opposite: generally, my conviction that what I’m reading is ‘wrong’ is supported by my confidence that I have, in fact, correctly understood the intended meaning as well as understood what the ‘correct’ way to present that meaning is. Likewise I can’t remember ever being confused when a speaker said [Its] about whether or not it was a possessive pronoun or a contraction. “Wrong” apostrophe use is “wrong in form” but it is typically not unclear in terms of meaning. I am more likely to pretend confusion over such a matter than to be truly confused, at least in the examples I typically run into in student papers and on the street.

    It’s the fact that “correct” apostrophe use rarely actually clarifies intended meaning that leads so many writers to decide it is not “useful” to their writing (or not useful enough to them to encourage them to learn the standard rules).


  23. Great points about usefulness, Tom. I guess that’s what makes us apostrophe pedants so tiresome: we know perfectly well what they mean, but we’re criticizing their punctuation (or lack thereof) anyway!

    But, to the contrary, I’d argue that the proper use of the apostrophe is something that editors and peer-reviewers of all kinds of professional writing, journalism in magazine & newspapers, etc. know well and probably use in making decisions about hiring staff. So I’d argue that rather than being a gatekeeper by enforcing correct use of the apostrophe, I’m offering my students some of the keys that will unlock gates for them.

    If nothing else, I think that the correct use of the apostrophe can be very useful in graduate admissions. At least, I rarely if ever have run into a really great grad student who was either still confused about or hadn’t bothered to figure out the proper use of the apostrophe. Perhaps it’s a talisman for finding students who will care about getting other details right? (But I guess that would make me a gatekeeper after all.)


  24. The above discussion about students’ inability to put an “s” on “colonist” reminds me of a common bit of creeping illiteracy that I’ve been seeing in student papers: failure to add “ed” to words (participles, I think? Are those the ones you get when you make a noun into an adjective by adding “ed?”) in which the “ed” sound is muted in speech. I get papers saying that “Fred is bias” or “Jill is prejudice.” The other day, I saw a usually-literate blogger ranting about these weird new sneakers that claim to “make you look tone.” To all of this I say: AAAAAAAARGH! And also NOOOOOOOO! Stop immediately! I command that an emergency shipment of “ed” ending be sent to keyboards around the world ASAP.

    TSS, who confesses to being both biased and prejudiced against students who cannot form adjectives properly


  25. And I should confess: I teach English (and I expect my students to write Standard Written English)! I am totally a gatekeeper! I actually don’t have anything against gatekeepers: but I do believe we should be up-front and straightforward about when we are engaged in gatekeeping.

    But then again, I also think it’s okay for some people to say, “I don’t want to be inside your gated community,” and I can respect that choice.


  26. OK, so if we are giving up on the apostrophe, why not give up on everything students don’t learn in high school? I know that is an extreme response (I’m given to them) but writing is a craft, in addition to conveying simple information in as clear a way as possible. Would you make a chest of drawers with no handles, on the theory one could simply grasp the edges with one’s fingertips? No! I say, No!

    Can we do the ellipse next time? The misuse of the ellipse drives me insane. Or how about the crazy, weird $hit students give you for footnotes, when all they would have to do is copy the style that is in the book they are actually writing about.

    I think certain kinds of gatekeeping are just fine, particularly when we have to imagine that at least some of our students will be expected to use proper punctuation in the world. The interwebz hasn’t changed everyzings.


  27. Late to the party as always, but I wanted to add one thing that historians do that make my colleagues in other disciplines crazy. For us, the possessive of a name that ends with s has the added bonus of an ‘s. Not Shays’ but Shays’s. My best friend, the anthropologist, waxes eloquent about how idiotic she finds this. (She also hates footnotes, but that’s another story.)

    I tell my students that colonist is not equivalent to deer, the same in the singular or plural. They laugh, and then they remember to add the s. Thanks for the they-don’t-hear-the-final-s explanation, for I, too, have always been puzzled by that.


  28. The apostrophe is unique to the English language, isn’t it? I saw be proud. Twas the night before Christmas…..I also love the King James version of the Bible. I really can’t enjoy any other version. Was just in Uganda this summer and began more quickly that I would have imagined to use the word shall and other colloquial ways the Ugandans speak English. It was cute.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.