Sunday, January 3, 2010

Apostrophes -- Our Next Endangered Species

(This repost from my JournalSpace blog is dedicated to The Plashing Vole.)

Twice yesterday my grammar radar was activated by the improper use of apostrophes in roadside signs. The fuel oil company's promotion of their "Summer Fill – Get Your's Now" was still fresh in my memory when, less than a quarter of a mile down the road, I drove past a furniture store that advertised "All Sofa's On Sale." These offenses against the rules of proper punctuation were compounded by the fact that the felonious signs were two-sided; the errors were in view both on my way in to and out of town, making a total of four apostrophes squandered, four apostrophes that won't be around when someone really needs them.

Lest you think I'm overly possessive with regard to apostrophes, consider that unlike the rhetorical apostrophe, the punctuation mark of the same name is not a resource with infinite reserves. In sixteenth century England, printers were the first to recognize that our supply of letters and symbols was not limitless. In Britain, there was in fact a shortage of the letter e around 1583, but the crisis took a backseat to larger political concerns. It was believed that additional vowels could be plundered from the Romance languages if necessary.

There was also widespread public resistance to printers' attempts to charge their customers a premium for vowels, so the symbol / '/ was appropriated as a stand-in for the /–e/ in the genitive /-es/. Hence, "the Queenes hand" became "the Queen's hand." This usage became the standard in Britain, and stocks of the letter e recovered sufficiently to allow for their export to colonies in the New World.

The discovery of the apostrophe led to still more grammatical changes, and the invention of the contraction allowed for further morphemic conservation. As is so often the case with progress, however, the apostrophe turned out to be a mixed blessing. The public's appetite for the /'s/ construction became insatiable. There arose a commonly held misconception that each and every terminal /s/ must be preceded by a /'/, and soon even possessive pronouns were not safe from having apostrophes wantonly insinuated into their spellings.

Today it is not only merchants' signage that offends; widely-respected periodicals, newspapers, and even handouts our children's teachers send home are the carriers of this epidemic. The omission of apostrophes is a rarer offense, and has done little to ameliorate the impending apostrophe shortage.

It is time for grassroots action. The media has become a major offender; feminists insist we address the issue of missed periods first; politicians would like us to go on believing that possessives and plurals are interchangeable. That is the kind of thinking that leads to empire building, unfettered greed (note the absence of any apostrophe in the first-person genitives "my" and "mine"), and reckless consumption of resources such as the apostrophe. But we cannot assume that there are stores of undiscovered apostrophes in distant lands, there for our taking. We must remember that the English language does not hold sole dominion over this mark. Without sufficient apostrophes, the future of communication itself is bleak.

I urge you to be aware of how you use apostrophes, and talk to your friends about their consumption. Form apostrophe rescue societies, educate your community, and give misused apostrophes a second chance.

Coming soon - Homophones: It's Not Just About Gender


  1. Very clever. I read the Vole's diatribe too and must confess I saved the website he attached as I've been known to use one of the little buggers improperly on occasion. I'll continue to try and get it right in every instance.

  2. Ill do my part to conserve apostrophes. I cant use them when I type on my laptop, as its supply has already been depleted; in fact, when the last one was used, the laptops quote key fell off.

    My main computers keyboard still has some, but I promise I wont put apostrophes where theyre not needed.

  3. see this just ONE of the reasons why some citizens should be armed.

  4. There could be some deep trouble brewing here Intelli. What makes my blood boil is the lack of the use of an apostrophe in contractions,
    ... the most common being the misuse of "your" instead of "you're." Bad times ahead I'm afraid. Maybe we can borrow a few from the French. They seem to have plenty of them.

  5. Intelliwench, what a wonderfully witty piece. It made me laugh a lot.

    On American Wife: last 150 pages flag badly. Which still leaves 500 good pages…

  6. Happy New Year, Intel!

    I'm totally with Doug and will do my part to conserve apostrophes also.
    I am a fan of the little buggers!

  7. Lou, thank you for caring :-)

    Doug, the sentiment is nice, but there's just something missing.

    sas: I agree - I always carry a red mark-up pencil with me!

    Mr. C, your suggestion sounds fine, as long as folks know not to mistake an accent for an apostrophe. Then the consequences will be unspeakable (unwriteable?).

    Vole, I was hoping you'd be amused. ("Wife" is waiting for me at the campus library, and it looks like there will be plenty of indoor-appropriate weather to give it a go.)

    Elin, Happy (belated) New Year to you, too! Glad to have you along for the cause.

  8. I do solemnly swear to use apostrophes only when necessary and only when applicable. A fun post to mill over Intelliwench.

  9. Kyle, your commitment to the cause is welcome!

  10. Har...informative post even the second time around. Also I have been waiting these long years for an attack on my dot, dot, dot proclivity...but, you still haven't bitten.

    What I am wondering is...did you pass up the fill offer?

  11. What a great resource!

  12. jaded, I let you pass on the dot dot dot because...well, I do it, too! (And since the heat pump doesn't use fuel oil, I was able to pass up the fill.)(Although maybe I should put a tank in the back yard to fill up when it's a bargain, then re-sell it when the price is up, just like the big boys do.)

    Anonymous & wildstorm - glad you liked!

  13. (I wanted to type "your welcome" but I just couldn't do it.)


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