The strange case of the disappearing apostrophes

In grammar news from across the Irish Sea, Birmingham city council has decided to phase out the apostrophe from its street signs and place names. Apparently this has been going on for decades, but only recently was it made official. It happens in my town too:

Stan Carey - St. Paul's Road apostrophe

Erratic and missing apostrophes abound in display writing and unedited writing, such as in shop signs, handwritten notices and internet blogs. A couple of weeks ago I saw a block of cheese in a shop with the incorrect plural cheese’s – the notorious greengrocer’s apostrophe – typed on the packaging.

The overwhelming majority who voted in the online poll in the Birmingham Post are in favour of retaining the apostrophe (and, presumably, removing it if it doesn’t belong). This is unsurprising.

It’s not a difficult punctuation mark to learn to use properly, but it evidently presents widespread difficulty and probably always has done. The official guidelines on apostrophe use are current conventions rather than eternal rules, and they have changed considerably since the apostrophe’s introduction to English in the sixteenth century.

Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson all used what would now be considered errant apostrophes, presumably without raising too many contemporary eyebrows. George Bernard Shaw, who raised many an eyebrow, referred to them as “uncouth bacilli” and tended to avoid using them at all. In 1985, the renowned lexicographer Robert Burchfield said:

The apostrophe was only a moderately successful device, and it is probably coming to the end of its usefulness, certainly for forming plurals and marking possession. It may only be retained for contractions.

Don’t presume that this gets you off the hook though – better to understand and apply the current guidelines than to use and abuse the mark haphazardly.

8 Responses to The strange case of the disappearing apostrophes

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Here’s good news: the good old English genitive will survive – in German(y).
    Example:
    What once would have been Ralfs Reifenladen (Ralf’s Tyre Shop) is now Ralf’s Reifenshop; and Heidi’s Hair Studio in former times would rather have been Heidis Frisierstübchen.

    Telling Ralf and Heidi that their name plates (?) would be perfect if their shops happened to be located on the other side of the Channel, Ralf and Heidi would smile: ‘Oh, is it so? – Oh well, everyone is writing it this way nowadays, right?”

    Conclusion: Once a majority has accepted as correct what’s (been) wrong, the ‘mistake’ becomes ‘the rule’. :)

  2. Stan says:

    There’s a lot of truth in your conclusion, Sean.

    It would be funny if use of the possessive apostrophe waned in English, only to find renewed life in German(y)! Much of the time, especially in informal English and commercial signs, the mark seems to be inserted and omitted almost arbitrarily. This is why I found Burchfield’s prediction so interesting. Will the day arrive when a critical mass of English-speaking people just say “Enough! No more possessive apostrophes!” Probably not, and even if everyone else agreed with an “Okay then!”, the new way would bring its own problems.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Against advice and vehement resistance from authors, journalists in Germany a spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) was pushed through, allegedly with the aim to make ‘everything easier’.
    To cut it short: Those who would have had difficulties with the old ‘rules’, will have problems with any orthograqphy-‘rules’.
    Example:
    Old: article ‘das’ ; conjunction daß
    New: article ‘das’ ; conjunction dass

    Thus, who once wouldn’t have known when to write ‘daß’, now will easily know when to write ‘dass’?

    Haha, Stan. This is a blog about the English, and I am ranting about the German language. In future I shall try to resist the temptation.

  4. Stan says:

    Sean, if a rant arises unstoppably, it is usually best to see it through. Feel free to do so here! English and German share a past, and their respective problems sometimes share a present.

    I remember reading about Günter Grass’s opposition to the orthography reform (which I’ve just reminded myself of, by skimming here). There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to improve the way we use language, but it should be done by people who know what they are doing, and proposed reforms should be guidelines rather than rules. Otherwise you end up making a horse’s aß of it.

  5. Sean Jeating says:

    Agreed.
    As for the orthography reform: At one stage confronted with loads of examples re the nonsense, that rather than an improvement would turn out as an ‘improworsement’ (German: Verschlimmbesserung’), the political experts would sigh: ‘Oh dear, you are right but now the new dictionaries are printed and it would be just unaffordable to withdraw them.’
    Nonetheless, since we had at least two reforms of the the reform, and the very publisher houses are still existing.

  6. [...] information, yet confusion continues unabated. Before you read further, you might want to read my earlier post on the subject. It’s shorter than this [...]

  7. [...] and thought apostrophes in Birmingham place names should be retained, but Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey didn’t think it was that big of a deal, while Michael Quinion at World Wide Words pointed out [...]

  8. [...] been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, [...]

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