Take Two for September 23, 2013

Is the apostrophe unnecessary?

apostrophe

An image of an apostrophe.

Imagine writing an email to your family, friends or colleagues without using a single apostrophe. Sound painful?

The punctuation mark is so engrained in the English language that knowing how to use it properly is a badge of honor, and misusing it opens you up to a whole host of abuse (especially on the Internet). Heck, even our smartphones and tablets might autocorrect an apostrophe omission or two. 

For many people — and devices – not using the apostrophe feels wrong and unnatural, but is it really necessary? 

In a recent article for Slate, self-proclaimed "sentence sommelier" James Harbeck argues that the we could and should ditch the apostrophe. 

"Apostrophes seems like they're useful...they're a thing that we use to distinguish the educated from the woeful, unwashed," said Harbeck. "Actually they do very little real good unless you think of it as a good to be able to condescend to other people."

Despite what we might think, the apostrophe hasn't always been a part of the English language. In fact, it's a relic from a time when English speakers wanted to mimic the French. 

Beginning in the 1500s, French speakers began using an apostrophe to indicate places where a letter had been dropped (for example, le hotel turns into l'hotel). English speakers followed suit, and by the 18th century they were also using it to indicate possessives.

"The apostrophe was actually an invasive species brought over from France," said Harbeck. "The English said 'Oh, look the French are doing this, seems like a good idea'. Then somebody had the idea that in the possessives in English, that was something that was being dropped...That's when all heck broke loose."

We've been using the apostrophe so long, wouldn't dropping the it make reading more difficult? Isn't there a possibility that the word "i'll" might be confused with "ill"?

"Only in places where you would use one or the other with equal probability," said Harbeck. "I would say that its rather difficult to come up with sentences where you're going to say shell or she'll equally likely. The one word that is the biggest weakness is "were".  We could use we're or were in places where they could be confused."

Still, Harbeck says the apostrophe is misused by English speakers so often that it's time to think about whether it's actually doing us a disservice. 

"Consider this. When you have a computer program that gives a lot of trouble to a large percentage of people who are its target users, you would say that that program has some errors in design," said Harbeck. "I am suggesting that we consider the apostrophe to be a bit of a bug in the design of English ethnography. It's not working out for everybody, so we should just stop and ask ourselves honestly, why?"

Web article by Michelle Lanz


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