Let's Show the Apostrophe Some Love

Text messaging is just one force conspiring against proper apostrophe use, says John Richards.
Text messaging is just one force conspiring against proper apostrophe use, says John Richards. (Family Photo)
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By John Kelly
Monday, February 23, 2009

Consider the apostrophe. It is one of the smallest elements of the English language and yet it is so powerful that it can convey ownership as surely as any deed or contract. It can conjure up the state of being as surely as any philosopher.

And now, its under assault.

Right there, for example: Its under assault. That's exactly the kind of mistake that drives grammarians nut's.

There's another one: nut's. Perhaps the only thing more annoying than not using an apostrophe when the situation demands it is using one when the situation doesn't.

In England, two local governments -- in Birmingham and in Wakefield -- have recently decided it's too much trouble to keep straight which street names require apostrophes and which don't. In Birmingham, St. Paul's Square will henceforth be known as St. Pauls Square. This reminded me of a shopping center in Hyattsville that, after a renovation a few years ago, became the Mall at Prince Georges. The county may be Prince George's, but the shopping center is the Mall at Prince Georges. Go figure.

If you think of the apostrophe as a comma that floats above the ground -- and I don't know why you would -- then people are trying to shoot it down, blast it from the sky, obliterate it.

At least one man is trying to save it.

John Richards is an 84-year-old retired journalist from Lincolnshire in England. In 2001, he founded the Apostrophe Protection Society (http://www.apostrophe.org.uk), an organization devoted to saving that unloved little piece of punctuation, lest it go the way of the passenger pigeon or the thylacine.

"I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization," John told me when I rang him up the other day. "I don't like any attempt to diminish it. . . . Things like a city council removing apostrophes is a backward step, and it sets a very poor example to children."

John sees glaring errors everywhere. "I see a lot of signs in shops: 'CD's for Sale' -- CD apostrophe S. I think that annoys me as much as anything. We have a cafe in the town which offers 'Teas' -- Teas apostrophe. It annoys me. In fact, I won't go into the place. Also, I notice quite a lot of people now, if a word ends in an S, don't put an apostrophe after the S, just an apostrophe. That's also very annoying."

John believes there are several forces conspiring against correct apostrophe usage. For starters, teachers can't be bothered to get it right. "Secondly, I wonder about the media," he said. "Some newspapers -- not The Washington Post, of course -- are a little careless about their use of words."

Then there's the ubiquity of text messaging, where speed, not correctness, is of the essence. "People get used to not bothering in texts and then don't bother in more official documents."

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