The war on the apostrophe

First aired on The Current 17/06/13

apostrophe.jpgIs the apostrophe destined for the grammatical bone-yard, alongside archaic terms like "thou" and "thee"? It would be, if its fate were up to those who started Kill the Apostrophe, a website "for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language." But the apostrophe also has its passionate defenders, like the members of the Society for the Protection of the Apostrophe. The Current examined the debate in a recent episode.

The apostrophe has long been unpopular. In 1891, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names abolished its use in most place-names. George Bernard Shaw avoided using them, saying,"there is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering pages with these uncouth bacilli." Now, which calls the apostrophe redundant, wasteful, snobbish and an impediment to communication and understanding, is waging an online campaign to get rid of it.

But the apostrophe also has its staunch defenders. Retired journalist John Richards, who lives in Boston, England, is the founder of the Society for the Protection of the Apostrophe. "There were so many cases of misuse and incorrect use that I started it," he told host Anna Maria Tremonti, adding that "thousands of people have written to me, supporting me." 

Richards believes that the apostrophe needs to be saved because it's an essential part of the English language. "If you start abandoning the apostrophe, why not abandon the semicolon, full stop, capital letters, spelling?" he said. He gave the example of a notice outside an apartment building, which read "Residents' refuse to be placed in bins." Richards pointed out that "if you leave out the apostrophe, you have 'residents refuse to be placed in bins.' Quite a different meaning."

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Though many people misuse the apostrophe, Richards didn't think that was a good reason to get rid of it. Some might argue that the English language is evolving all the time, so why not let the language on the page change as well? Richards said he was favour of change that was necessary, or an improvement, "[but] I don't see abandoning the apostrophe an improvement, and it's certainly not necessary."

Richards blames "a mixture of ignorance and laziness" for the widespread lack of proper usage. "I think teachers do their best, but I don't think [people] are taught properly," he said. "Also I think the media is to blame. One often sees magazines and newspapers with incorrect grammar...young people have a very poor example set to them."

Richards says he's been called pedantic, but that doesn't bother him. "I'm proud to be pedantic. I think we need more pedants around." 

The apostrophe isn't seen as essential, however, by Ted Gibson, professor at MIT's department of brain and cognitive sciences, who has studied how people process language. According to Gibson, getting rid of the apostrophe wouldn't have much of an effect on our understanding of what is written or said. "It would be difficult initially for people to learn the new rule that we're not writing that apostrophe any more," he said. "But as soon as they've learned it there wouldn't be any difficulty, I don't think, in understanding what was intended." He went on to explain that the brain adapts to ambiguity in the spoken word all the time and we make the same adaptations with the written word. Much of our understanding of a word is based on its context. 

The Current also spoke to Kate Burridge, professor of linguistics at Monash University in Australia, who called the apostrophe "a useless addition to the English language" that we'd be better off without. She was surprised by the emails and letters she received after taking that public stance. "I had no idea that people felt so strongly about this little pesky piece of punctuation."

What do you think? Should we get rid of the apostrophe?