Disappearing apostrophes

09 Mar 2020
Could we do without apostrophes?

The announcement before Christmas that the Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) had finally been defeated by, in the words of its founder John Richards, ‘the ignorance and laziness present in modern times’ prompted some discussion. Rob Drummond suggested that the apostrophe ‘is not actually necessary for understanding’, pointing out that we constantly use possessives and contractions when speaking: ‘If something is ambiguous in speech, we rephrase so that it isn’t. We can easily do (and routinely already do) the same in writing. If we all took this view, we would be left with just a handful of genuinely useful apostrophes.’ Ah. So a ‘genuinely useful’ apostrophe is possible. Where might it be found? 


The writer George Bernard Shaw famously eschewed apostrophes. David Crystal, in one of two chapters devoted to apostrophes in Making a Point (Profile, 2016), quotes him: 

I have written aint, dont, havnt [sic], shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example, hell for he’ll.

There are other words that fall into this category. Ill for I’ll; shell for she’ll; well for we’ll; cant for can’t; wont for won’t. Those last two are particularly unlikely to be mistaken in text; actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sentence where you genuinely can’t tell whether ‘she’ll’ or ‘shell’ is meant, either. But do writers or editors want to risk any sort of ambiguity? The fact that GBS makes an exception for these words is telling.


In August 2019 there was a story on the BBC website about the importance of apostrophe placement. Elizabeth Ohene reported: ‘The government has formally declared 4 August a public holiday to commemorate Founders’ Day – a celebration of those who founded the state of Ghana.’ What’s the big issue? Well, there had previously been a ‘Founder’s Day’, 21 September, instated by President Atta Mills to celebrate Kwame Nkrumah as the founder of Ghana. After Atta Mills lost the 2016 election, the new president decided that the group of people who started and led the fight for independence would instead be celebrated. Hence ‘Founders’ Day’. Not every placement of an apostrophe holds this political significance, but it is useful, and significant for those concerned, to know whether a toy box belongs to a single girl or more than one, for example.

James Harbeck, in an article urging us to ‘Kill the apostrophe!’, mentions another way a possessive apostrophe can be useful: ‘An apostrophe tells you that the whiskey maker is Jack Daniel, not Jack Daniels’, adding, ‘but most people get that wrong anyway’. If Jack Daniel was still alive, though, it might matter to him that his name was rendered correctly if people thought to read the bottle.


‘Apostrophes with plurals? Never!’ you say (no doubt envisioning ‘potato’s’ or ‘carrot’s’ hastily written on a shop sign). Well – almost never. The only exception to this general rule is, in the words of Larry Trask, ‘the rare case in which you would need to pluralize a letter of the alphabet or some other unusual form which would become unrecognizable with a plural ending stuck on it’. Trask gives the examples of ‘Mind your p’s and q’s’ and ‘How many s’s are there in Mississippi?’, which reminds me of another example of this type, in a small book by Simon Griffin called (pardon me) Fucking Apostrophes (Icon, 2015): ‘How many i’s are there in Milli Vanilli?’ 

Anyway, back to the safety of Trask. He continues, ‘Note that I have italicized these odd forms; this is a very good practice if you can produce italics’. New Hart’s Rules, in fact, gives an option of dropping the apostrophe in favour of the italics in such instances, which is rather clever, isn’t it, although it wouldn’t work with handwriting. Hart’s also gives an alternative suggestion: of using quotation marks rather than an apostrophe to separate the letter from the ‘s’:

subtract all the ‘x’s from the ‘y’s

Back to reality

So that’s an area where apostrophes could be dropped. However, we’re dealing with maybes, aren’t we? As Trask writes, although it’s ‘the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful  ... unfortunately the apostrophe has not been abolished yet. ... I'm afraid, therefore, that, if you find apostrophes difficult, you will just have to grit your teeth and get down to work.’

As ever, after having a bit of a grouch Trask goes on to offer some good, solid advice, particularly about the basics of apostrophe use. But it’s in Harts (from p. 70) that we find the real treasure trove, covering how to use apostrophes in all sorts of odd cases – including double possessives (‘a photo of Mary’s’), linked nouns, residences and places of businesses (‘going to the doctor’s’), and names ending in ‘s’ (although note that CMOS 17 (7.17–7.19) is different here, recommending ’s after every name – yes, even Euripides’s: ‘though when these forms are spoken, the additional s is generally not pronounced’). 

Knowing our limits

But there is one area where Hart’s throws up its hands: ‘It is impossible to predict with any certainty whether a place or organizational name ending in s requires an apostrophe.’ Tell me about it. There’s St Albans (no apostrophe), and then the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, which is, being ‘of Saint Alban’ ... St Albans Cathedral (also no apostrophe. Eh?). But these decisions aren’t ours to make, and it was during the 2012 Waterstone’s rebranding (to Waterstones) that the APS overstretched itself by calling the dropping of the apostrophe ‘just plain wrong’ and ‘grammatically incorrect’.

It’s the small stuff that marks out the pedants, and trying to thwart them (particularly when they give a bad name to those of us who work with words) is an understandable instinct. One of the reasons Rob Drummond gives for ‘removing apostrophes altogether’ from our language is to vastly reduce ‘the pedantry arsenal’. But I’m not sure that’s the best reason. Pedants gonna pedant, after all, and I notice the APS website (which is still up) also contains a page of further ‘problems’ including ‘misuses’ of less/fewer and who/whom, firmly alongside the words ‘angry’ and ‘annoyed’.

So apostrophes and proper nouns are another area where we shouldn’t sweat it, and, of course, language will evolve and apostrophes will change. They may even disappear in time. So, will we be seeing Harts, Fowlers and Butchers? Thatll be the day.

First published as an article in the March/April 2020 issue of Editing Matters, the magazine of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

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