Learning a rule or convention in language gives people a secure footing in an area of usage. When the convention is ignored or challenged, this can undermine the pocket of security and offend people’s sense of what is proper and necessary. This might help explain the levels of anxiety and outrage we see when, for example, the serial comma appears to be under threat, or when unnecessary apostrophes – such as the one in Waterstones’ name – are discontinued.
Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation, and so on.
One of the grievances people have about apostrophe use in particular is that doing it improperly leads to ambiguity. But Stephen Bullon, in his recent post about the Waterstones story, doubts that there is any “apostrophe-driven ambiguity in speech”. Language Log makes a similar point: that although languages are “loaded with ambiguity”, it’s not the kind that leads to genuine confusion.
So what does the future hold for the apostrophe?
Throughout its history, the apostrophe has been dogged by inconsistent use. There is no reason to think we can create a uniform system simply by demanding that people get it right, because what’s “right” is different for different people. Besides, when editors, linguists and lexicographers confuse its and it’s – and they do – there is little hope for less language-sensitive writers.
In a post here in 2009, Gwyneth Fox said she was beginning to think apostrophes should be abolished. But they’re too ingrained in everyday writing to be just done away with (unless you are G. B. Shaw). If they go, they will go gradually. Robert Burchfield, noting the prevalence of the mark’s misuse and the abandonment of it by many businesses, called it “only a moderately successful device” that was “probably coming to the end of its usefulness, certainly for forming plurals and marking possession”.
We may see a trend towards using it less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint. Given our ever-increasing use of these forms of communication, the apostrophe situation could look quite different in a few decades’ time.Email this Post