The Apostrophe Rules: A Raging Debate

Usage

At a recent social gathering, a woman I had just met cornered me. So, I was an editor? Where, she demanded to know, did I stand on the possible abolition of the apostrophe? The debate currently raging had left her uncertain, and she wanted to hear an expert opinion from the horse’s mouth. (Thanks.) Or might that soon be horses mouth?

I mumbled something about how, yeah, a lot of people seem to have trouble figuring out how to use the apostrophe. And, hm, wasn’t it interesting how many ways there were to misuse it? And, oh my, did they just open the salad bar? (I was really not in the mood to debate punctuation.)

Later, though, I thought back to what she’d said. Currently raging? While the Internet has made it possible for enemies and defenders of the apostrophe to trumpet their arguments to the world, the debate has in fact been bubbling on the back burner for decades. Okay, make that centuries. The apostrophe was introduced into English in the sixteenth century and, as the Oxford Companion to English Literature soberly admits, “There never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear-cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people.”*

What’s the Problem? 

Who knows? Punctuation is meant to provide clarity, not confuse, and the rules governing the use of the apostrophe are, for the most part, relatively simple. Let’s review. In her excellent article, “The Acrobatic Apostrophe: Why is this versatile curlicue so accident-prone?” published in the January 1994 edition of The Editorial Eye, Dianne Snyder writes,

The conventions governing the apostrophe distinguish three usages:

  • To show possession (her mother-in-law’s house)
  • To show omission and elision of letters or numbers (isn’t, o’clock, the ’90s)
  • To denote certain plurals (1980’s, learn your ABC’s)

The last is a matter of style.

Is It Just a Matter of Style? 

I have to concede that in many cases it’s difficult to state the rules with any firmness. Some publishers, for instance, would insist on 1980s and ABCs. Should it be Lynne Truss’ book or Lynne Truss’s book? Here, even the Chicago Manual of Style has wavered over the years. In Chapter 7 of its current (16th) edition, we find some of the rules qualified with phrases such as “without an apostrophe—a departure from Chicago’s former preference,” “in a return to Chicago’s earlier practice,” or “in a departure from earlier practice.” Yes, even in the world of punctuation, styles change.

Damning Evidence 

Style aside, though, it’s clear that egregious misuse abounds. Remember the mileage that Lynne Truss got (in her bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves) out of the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”? That’s an apostrophe placed before the final -s in the plural form of a word: apple’s and orange’s, for instance, and it is rampant. (Given its popularity, shouldn’t it be called the “greengrocers’ apostrophe”? Just asking.)

But even if you exclude straightforward plurals erroneously gone singular possessive, you don’t need to look very far to see more “satanic sprinklings” (Truss’s words again). Any word ending in “s” seems to be fair game, even a simple verb, as in “City Leader Hit’s Back on Crime.” Apparently, people think that it’s better to have an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong than to be missing one where it does. So we end up with oddities such as commas and apostrophe’s, mens coat’s, Christma’s, and even (from the truly uncertain) apple,s and orange,s.

Drawing the Battle Lines 

These are the kinds of apostrophe catastrophes that get the members of the Apostrophe Protection Society worked up. Meanwhile, the people behind killtheapostrophe.com point to the very same errors as proof that the rules are too complicated to be grasped by common mortals and should be ditched altogether. What do you think?    

To fuel your argument, check out the June 17, 2013, edition of CBC’s The Current at http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/06/17/the-apostrophe-catastrophe/, where you’ll also find links to the major combatants’ websites: http://www.killtheapostrophe.com/ and http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/  

* as quoted by Lynne Truss in her bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves