Maybe this is a strange thing for someone to say who spent as much time as I did learning to use apostrophes, but I won’t miss them when they’re gone. It seems clear to me that they will go. Like the hyphen, we’re quickly learning we can live without them; and texting, I think, will be the apostrophe’s death-blow.
I always found apostrophes a little equivocal anyway. The rule—as I learned it—was that an apostrophe had three functions: One was to indicate a dropped letter in a contraction of two words, as “don’t” for “do not”, for example; and “sha’n’t” for “shall not”, which—to be correct—actually requires two apostrophes. (So does “foc’s’le” for “forecastle”, even though “forecastle” isn’t actually a contraction of two words at all, but one word that sailors pronounce very badly.) A second use was to indicate possession (“Jack’s book”), although this rule was just a refinement of rule one, since “Jack’s book” was originally a contraction of “Jack, his book”—a usage that has been obsolete for so long that a lot of people don’t realize that it was ever the “correct” way, and “Jack’s” would get you points off on your English paper. To make the rule regular, “Mary, her book” would have to give us the form “Mary’r book”, which you’ll notice doesn’t exist.
The third use of an apostrophe was to pluralize individual letters, as in, “all the a’s and b’s”, which I still think is useful but I seem to be the only one who remembers it.
Do we need any of those? The extra apostrophes in “sha’n’t” and “foc’s’le” went the way of the Dodo and we still recognize those words when we see them—which in the case of “shan’t”, we hardly ever do anymore. As indicators of possession, apostrophes seem to cause more confusion than clarity. I’m so tired of seeing “it’s” used incorrectly (it can only be a contraction for “it is”), that I’d rather just never see that word with an apostrophe ever again. And “Jacks book” seems intelligible enough to me.
But anyway, love ’em or loath ’em, in twenty or thirty years I think apostrophes will be gone. In 1978 the Colorado State Legislature decreed that the only acceptable spelling of the name of the mountain is “Pikes Peak” without the apostrophe; and as goes Pikes Peak, so goes the nation. Remember that you heard it here first.
2 thoughts on “Adieu, Apostrophe!”
You’re probably right. But, in fact, the only meaning of “it’s” isn’t “it is”; it also means “it has,” as in “It’s been raining recently.”
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This made me smile, as you used the word “foc’s’le” as an example; I’ve got that word a few times in a novel I’m writing! Granted, it’s in a dialogue between sailors aboard an 18th C. royal navy ship… though it is actually a legitimate, alternative spelling. But just think – if the apostrophe went extinct, we would lose the entertainment of such sites as “Apostrophe Conservation League of North America”, or “Apostrophe Catastrophes” or “Apostrophe Abuse” ! 😉
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