December 9, 2019

Why I’m possessive about apostrophes

Financial Times

DECEMBER 9, 2019

An endangered punctuation mark is being forced into extinction by the internet. Will it soon only exist in the pedant tense?

© Lucas Varela

Sad news from the land of language. After 18 years of campaigning for proper punctuation, the fabulously named Apostrophe Protection Society is shutting down.

“The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!” declared John Richards, its founder and chairman, in an online statement with a, frankly, debatable use of the exclamation mark. The bottom line is that punctuation’s equivalent of the WWF is giving up the fight.

This is, of course, disastrous news for the few remaining apostrophes still in the wild. Their numbers have been falling for some time and they are now considered an endangered punctuation mark.

There are said to be fewer than 200 correctly positioned apostrophes still thriving outside captivity. Many rely entirely on predictive texting for their survival.

Viewers of Sir David Attenborough’s groundbreaking series Planet Punctuation will never forget the moving scene in which baby apostrophes race after their mother in a dash for safety across a field of teenagers writing WhatsApp messages.

Rather as the red squirrel was routed by the grey, the original indigenous breed has been left hanging by misused apostrophes.

The society fought heroically for appropriate apostrophes, setting out the three rules of use; first, to denote missing letters; second, to indicate possession except in the case of possessive adjectives such as “its” (not to be confused with it’s — see point one); and third, that apostrophes must never be used to indicate plurals.

In the early days, Richards took to upbraiding offenders with perfectly punctuated notes. (Apparently, even some journalist’s don't know how to use them.) But now, at the age of 96, he has admitted that he has to cut back on some of his commitments.

There is talk in the militant punctuation community of the fight being taken on by radicals from the campaign group Extinction Apostrophise, many of whom are planning a week’s sit-in at Waterstones and Lloyds until they restore their signs of omission.

Waterstones’ decision to dispense with the apostrophe — the bookstore is named after its founder Tim Waterstone — was a particularly grievous betrayal. A bank might be expected to save on printing costs but you’d hope for more from a bookseller. Apparently, it is all down to the internet, which does not care for apostrophes in emails.

Sloppy apostrophising is common. Earl’s Court in London takes a singular apostrophe because the region once belonged to specific earls. Neighbouring Barons Court takes no apostrophe because there is no record of any similar baron.

Yet Shepherd’s Bush has kept its apostrophe, even though there is no record of any such shepherd. If the land was once a resting place for shepherds on their way to market, then surely the name should be Shepherds’ Bush? It’s a minefield.

Nonetheless, the surrender of the apostrophe campaign need not signify total defeat. (The Parenthesis Protection League is apparently still going strong, as are The Campaign for the Correct Use of You’re and The Adverb League, which fights for the accurate use of there, which is under threat from its possessive namesake. Motto: “There is no their, there.”)

There remain some very valuable uses of the apostrophe. It is terribly handy in dealing with ignorant abuse. I remember the pleasure of responding to an email that began “Your a piece of . . . ” by advising the sender that next time he should go for “You’re a piece of . . . ” or risk losing my good opinion.

But for all the fun, Richards may have a point. The apostrophe is heading for extinction, preserved only in old books by old men and women. It may soon be as rare as an accurately placed “only” or an unsplit infinitive.

The untroubled can argue that in most cases a reader can still discern the meaning of a phrase without the punctuation mark. It is, of course, not required for aural comprehension.

Alas, the forces of the internet and chat apps may mean the battle is lost. The apostrophe may soon no longer exist except in the pedant tense. Some of us remain attached to it. Perhaps we’re just possessive.