Death of the Apostrophe?

The apostrophe has a long history of confusing people, and now its life hangs in the balance as the UK considers getting rid of it all together.

So what did this poor punctuation mark ever do to deserve the threat of extinction? Does being “confusing” warrant its possible death, or can it even be blamed for confusing people in the first place? The UK has raised worldwide concern that perhaps the troubling apostrophe is unnecessary, forcing the English language into a position where it must reevaluate its purpose and relevance in today’s society.  After taking a good look at the life and times of the apostrophe, I find that its existence remains absolutely relevant and necessary, as it not only marks the evolution of the English language, but also the degeneration.

Let us first address the UK’s concern that the apostrophe is “too confusing”. To them, I offer this quick and concise summary that schools try to drill into your head as a child. Obviously, the UK’s educational system is either lacking OR they find it too overwhelming and simply can’t be bothered to master it at all:

The apostrophe marks the omission of one of more letters (can’t, don’t)

Marks and distinguishes the possessive case: Possessive singular forms (Julia’s, flower’s) Simple plural forms (Julias, flowers) Possessive plural forms (Julias’, flowers’)

So why is any of that important? It all comes down to quantity and ownership. How many flowers, and do they belong to anyone, or do they possess anything? Does Julia possess the flowers (Julia’s flowers) or do several Julias possess flowers? (Julias’ flowers). Sure, these might look like subtleties, but at the end of the day, they create a clearer, more concise picture for us.

Should you find yourself wanting someone to blame for the apostrophe catastrophe, you can look at frenchman Geoffroy Troy, who in 1529, introduced the apostrophe in an effort to reform French spelling towards its Latin roots. It was initially used in place of a vowel to indicate elision (as in l’heure in place of la heure), either due to incidental omission (I’m for I am) or because the letter no longer represented a sound (lov’d for loved). Later in the 16th century, it came to be used to mark a plural, especially when the word ended in ‘a’ as in “two comma’s.”

But my favorite is the romanticism of the apostrophe. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, often used it as Shakespeare did, to compensate for a silent letter.  What do you feel when you read this:

He lov’d the Poets, and if now alive

Would have lov’d me, as one not destitute

Of promise, nor belying the kind hope

Which he had form’d, when I, at his command,

Began to spin, at first, my toilsome Song.

(Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805: 510-14)

For me, the apostrophe signifies a longing for something. Something has been taken out, something has been lost. Romantic writing has always been about a return to nature, but also a reclaiming of simple language that doesn’t go over anyone’s head. When I see that apostrophe, I see the history of our written language; the silent ‘e’ and the ever-gracious apostrophe, reminding us that nothing is ever entirely lost.

Today we live in a world where slang has snuck it’s way into our dictionaries. We gon’ talk like this fo’ most tha time and ain’t nothin’ wrong wit dat, peeps sayin’. You must forgive me, for my slang isn’t very good, but the point I’m trying to illustrate is that the apostrophe continues to serve a great function of marking an omission in slang. Of course, the very inclusion of the apostrophe does not render the slang proper or correct, but for the purpose of fictional writing, it makes the reading process much smoother. Somehow, we have gone from beautiful romantic writing to degenerative slang, and all the while, the good ol’ apostrophe has stuck right by us, filling in for something that was lost along the way.

The greek translation of apostrophe is, “the act of turning away”, which is ironic in this case because that is exactly what the UK council is considering. Do we turn away from this punctuation mark, or do we continue to face it with confusion, hoping that our perplexity one day turns to awe? It was once the mark of an elevated language, the one, perhaps that Geoffroy Troy had hoped for, but now it stands by fragmented words, a ghost of the Old English.

Yet if we scrap it altogether, if we only make assumptions of who owns what, and what quantity we’re dealing with, then doesn’t that sound like a world destined to be uncertain?

Doesn’t that sound confusing?

-julia wojciechowski

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