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:
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.