The Current

The Apostrophe Catastrophe

A grammar war is brewing between people who want to ban it , and others who feel possessive of -- the apostrophe.

Mid-Devon County Council had no idea the can of worms it was opening earlier this year. It was a simple announcement - apostrophes would no longer be used in county signs. The reaction was swift... and the outrage bitter. A British paper proclaimed it an "apostrophe catastrophe"! Devon council abandoned its plans and will keep the apostrophes.

"A missing apostrophe. An apostrophe in the wrong place. Even worse an apostrophe where there shouldn't be one at all. What I've always found extraordinary is how intensely emotional people become over this issue. I could never have predicted the furious letters and emails following my suggestion that the possessive apostrophe was a useless addition to the English language and we'd be far better off without it. Such passionate support for a piece of punctuation that we imported from the French nearly 500 years ago".Kate Burridge, professor of linguistics at Monash University

Kate Burridge discovered you don't have to be English to be an apostrophe purist. She's a professor of linguistics at Monash University in Melbourne Australia.

The US Board on Geographic Names abolished apostrophes in most place names in 1891. 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.

Apostrophe Protection Society, John Richards

Today, a website called Kill the lays out a clear case against the punctuation mark...calling it redundant, wasteful, snobbish and time consuming in the technology driven age. Those people glued to their mobile devices... furiously sending text messages would likely agree.

But for people such as John Richards, being in a rush is no excuse for altering the language. He founded the Apostrophe Protection Society and he was in Boston England.

Professor of cognitive science at MIT, Ted Gibson

Ted Gibson is a professor of cognitive science at MIT's department of brain and cognitive sciences. He's studied how people process language. And if you think English shouldn't, can't , won't survive without apostrophes -- he's got news for you. He was in Boston, Massachusetts.

Professor of Linguistics at Monash University, Kate Burridge

Probably only in Quebec will you hear someone swear: "Sainte-Apostrophe"! But many Canadians consider the apostrophe kind of sacred. Few people have quite a grasp on the ins and outs of the mark as Frances Peck. She is a member of the Editors' Association of Canada, and teaches punctuation and grammar to editors and language professionals. We aired a clip.

The apostrophe is something that Kate Burridge has been getting her mind around for some years now. If you were listening to this conversation from the beginning, you'll remember she's the Professor of Linguistics at Monash University in Australia... who dared suggest an end to the apostrophe. She was in Melbourne, Australia.

Now it's your turn to weigh in on this loaded question -- would you be in favour of abolishing the apostrophe? Tweet us @thecurrentcbc or go to and click on Contact to find out all the ways to reach us, email, Facebook, phone.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.

Last Word - Apostrophe Theme Song

Who knew there was so much passion over the apostrophe? Perhaps in the days to come we should explore if there's similar fury ready to detonate over the virgule and octothorpe.

It's a fair bet they haven't inspired tunes with the patriotic bounce of The Apostrophe Squad Theme Song.

Listener Bonnie Young suggested we play this piece by Saskatchewan song-writer Norm Walker. He gets today's Last Word.

Other segments from today's show:


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