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Apostrophe apostasy

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.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan: You mentioned GBS. He also spelt shard the old way – as sherd, and there are other anomalies in his writings, but when it comes to the apostrophe, I think he was on to something. The genitive is usually understandable contextually, and contractions and plurals as well: Im talking about its use when its done consistently. And the grocers dont need it; the Joneses can also get by without it. Im sure I missed more than a few cases, but I cant think of them off the top of my head, and besides, its really not that important in the greater scheme of things, since its confusing for everyone.

  • Stan: you highlight the important difference between ambiguity and confusion. In languages like English there are high levels of *potential* ambiguity because many words have more than one meaning. But confusion – where the listener/reader genuinely infers a different meaning from the one the speaker/writer intended – is exceptionally rare (in speech or writing). Marc Leavitt’s apostrophe-free Comment demonstrates this. People like John Humphreys (BBC political interviewer, but also self-appointed guardian of English purity)- insist that they are not pedants but concerned only with clarity. Yet, however many imaginary sentences they dream up to ‘prove’ that we shouldn’t mix up ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ or the like, corpus data hardly ever throws up a sentence that would truly cause confusion. Context always disambiguates.

  • Marc: A most progressive response, and a fitting blend of content and form! I must say I’ve never found Shaw’s orthographical oddities offputting or even distracting, once I got used to them. There are not many instances when the apostrophe might be considered absolutely necessary for understanding — but we’ve all gotten so used to it, and a vocal minority are very protective of it. As for its being confusing for everyone: well, not quite everyone.

    Michael: Thank you for running with that point. The complaint that ambiguity threatens clarity is one I see a lot (and might even have made, years ago). Ambiguity that causes real confusion in communication is however strikingly rare; the gap between potential ambiguity and actual ambiguity is huge and significant. As you neatly put it, context always disambiguates — or almost always, at any rate.

  • A very interesting post!We have discussed it with my students together with my new reading lessons on Aleph by paulo Coelho.

  • In America at least there is a spoken non-null plural possessive creeping in. Around 2005 I was shocked to hear someone refer to Halloween costumes as “boyses costumes and girlses costumes,” which should be written as “boys’s / girls’s” not “boys’ / girls’.” Since then I’ve noticed this sort of thing on American TV a lot.

    While I haven’t adopted it myself yet, I hope the spoken /-sIs/ or /-zIs/ (or schwa) and written -s’s forms eventually take over. It’s silly to have one spoken form for plural (girls) and singular possessive (girl’s) and regular plural possessive (girls’ [vs. irregular women’s]). But I’m sure people would prefer “the personalities of the two Rosses” to “the two Rosses’s (Ross-es-es) personalities.”

  • Great piece, Stan. Another casualty of losing apostrophes would be more ambiguity in headlines, and more “crash blossoms.” I saw this one today,

    Gay groups angry Kansas anti-sodomy law remains on books

    which fluent headline readers will correctly parse as “Gay groups are angry that the Kansas anti-sodomy law remains on the books.” But if we were to lose apostrophes in possessives, it could also parse, rather confusingly, as “Gay groups’ angry Kansas anti-sodomy law remains on the books.”

  • While the apostrophe totters and crumbles away in English, it’s conquering new territory elsewhere. In German, in addition to its traditional uses, it turns up increasingly in other areas, including:

    – some types of contractions where it wasn’t traditionally used, such as an’s (= an das) instead of ans
    – genitive forms of names, such as Rudi’s Bierstube (traditionally, this would be Rudis Bierstube)
    – plural forms of recently-loaned nouns, such as PC’s, Notebook’s, DVD’s

    This latter trend is even affecting older loans such as Auto which, with its plural Autos, is long-established in German, and some which form their plurals with n, such as Nudel. These two plurals sometimes appear as Auto’s and Nudel’n.

    You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the spread of ‘Apostrophitis’ and the use of the ‘Deppenapostrophe’ (idiot’s apostrophe – or should that be idiots’ apostrophe, perhaps?!) have been prolifically documented, ridiculed and condemned.

    Here’s a business opportunity for someone: recycle all those obsolescent English apostrophes and export them to Germany. But get in there fast, while demand is still at its height …..

    Bastian Sick, eagle-eyed observer of the German language, reports going into a shop and seeing a sign advertising “CD s” and “DVD s” – with suspiciously wide gaps between the D and the s. On closer examination he could just make out the traces of apostrophes which had originally occupied the gaps. He doesn’t say whether the apostrophes had been excised by the shopowners or by enraged customers.

  • Alla: Thank you. I’m delighted you found it worth discussing with your students.

    Kevin: That’s a very interesting development. A long shot, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the Lord of the Rings films? I’m thinking in particular of the Gollum character and his very distinctive speech patterns: “Sneaky little hobbitses”, “Put out his eyeses”, “Nasty orcses”, etc.

    Orin: Thank you. That’s quite a headline! You’re right, of course, that without apostrophes an alternative interpretation is possible, though in this case it’s hard to imagine gay groups having an “angry Kansas anti-sodomy law”. But other examples could be more ambiguous, and we can expect that a certain amount of rephrasing would be required to make up for any clarity lost with the apostrophe, should it disappear.

    Jonathan: In a comment on my blog a few years ago, a friend in Germany wrote:
    “the good old English genitive will survive – in German(y). Example: What once would have been Ralfs Reifenladen (Ralf’s Tyre Shop) is now Ralf’s Reifenshop.”
    But although I had heard about the apostrophe infiltration in German, I hadn’t realised how far it had gone. Your Nudel’n example is especially striking. It seems to run counter to the orthography reform of 1996, which aimed to simplify German, but I suppose rules and official guidance will only carry so far: language change remains in the hands (and mouths and minds) of its speakers, and they may be reading a lot of English!
    As for the “traces of apostrophes” you describe, I have a word for them: apostrophantoms.

  • Another use for the apostrophe is to represent a particular Cyrillic character known as the soft sign (мягкий знак): Ь
    This character does not correspond to any Roman letter, and rather than being sounded it simply influences the value of the preceding letter. It occurs at the end of verb infinitives (eg ходить to go; жить to live) and in the middle of some other words and names (eg вольный free) and is never word initial. Proper names such as Мандельштам, Пильняк or Николай Васильевич Гоголь are usually rendered in English as Mandelshtam, Pilnyak and Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, but some transliteration systems insist on a mark that looks like an apostrophe to represent the soft sign, so you might come across Mandel’štam, Pil’nyak, or Nikolai Vasil’evič Gogol’.

    Until the Revolution, there was also a hard sign, Ъ, which in some systems is transliterated by ʺ. This character used to come at the end of all words which did not end in a soft sign or a vowel (I might be over-simplifying here) and in the middle of some other words. In 1918, word-terminal hard signs were abolished, but instances when it occurred within words were retained, eg съезжать which has a hard sign as the second character and a soft sign at the end. But that’s getting rather off the topic of apostrophes….

  • About ambiguity (see Michael’s comment on 23rd January)

    It’s not only guardians of linguistic purity that dream up imaginary sentences, of course. This practice has a respectable pedigree in linguistics. Remember Chomsky’s “Visiting relatives can be boring”? Two different deep structures, two different meanings – and both of them true, but has this sentence, or one like it, ever actually caused confusion?

    David Brazil, in ‘A Grammar of Speech’ (OUP 1995) distinguishes between indeterminacy and ambiguity. Indeterminacy is a pervasive (and in fact, as he argues, a necessary) feature of language as a decontextualised product. “She remembered the groceries in her car”, for example, is indeterminate in at least two ways. For one thing, it could mean either “She remembered the groceries that were in her car” or “While she was in her car, she remembered the groceries”. And for another thing, “she” and “her” could refer to the same person or to two different people.

    But if you study what Brazil calls ‘used language’ – language which has actually been produced in the course of a purpose-driven communicative process – you find that ambiguity rarely arises, because interlocutors are generally cooperative (they abide by Grice’s maxims) and draw on co-text, prosody, paralinguistics, context and shared knowledge in interpreting what they hear. In the process of interaction, indeterminacy is unproblematic and ambiguity is averted – or, if it does arise, it can be resolved through ‘negotiation of meaning’.

    Ambiguity is somewhat more likely to arise in writing than in speaking, because there’s less extralinguistic information available, and less prospect of remediation. And ambiguity in writing is less likely to come to light, because although the results of the writer’s work are documented, the results of the reader’s work aren’t.

    And …..

    re. Stan (today): The German Rechtschreibungsreform (spelling reform) of 1996 was (still is) a complete pig’s ear. And anyway, as you say, and as Nudel’n shows, the folk do as they please.

    re. Stephen (today): The Cyrillic soft sign (usually) represents palatalisation of the consonant it follows and, similarly, Czech and Slovak (Slavonic languages written in the Roman alphabet) also use a diacritic which is similar, but not identical, to an apostrophe to represent palatalisation of d and t, and l (Slovak only). This is a tall-letter variant of the háček (which I hope you’ll be able to see on the letter c in that word!)

  • Stephen: Fascinating. Thank you for the lesson!

    Jonathan: That’s a clear and articulate demonstration of the importance of pragmatics. Imaginary examples are so much a part of the tradition of education, it’s easy to overlook how unlikely or misleading their contents can be.

    Kevin: I’m sure you’re right. It was highly speculative on my part. I’m struck by the superficial parallel, though, and I wonder if the same forms have cropped up elsewhere in fictional or real-world usage.

  • I’ve noticed on Modern Family the teenagers refer to the gay couple’s house as “your uncles’s”.

    The hard and soft sign in Russian originally came from short vowels now no longer pronounced (one was retained in Bulgarian, is in fact the ‘u’ in Bulgaria, България; their retention in spelling is sort of like the silent final E in English nowadays: helpful for pronunciation of other parts of the word but without sound themselves. Interestingly, in Ukrainian what is a ъ in Russian is actually written with an apostrophe (as in the verb “to unite: объединить in Russian, об’єднувати in Ukrainian), though it’s not a simple equivalence( as with “family” – in Russian семья, but in Ukrainian сім’я). This is, of course, quite peripheral to the apostrophe’s use in English.

  • The Ridger: “your uncles’s” is an interesting case. Is it a way to stress the distinction between house and uncles? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it, or heard the same done to, say, parents’, as in “your parents’s [house]”. Or is it more of a playful thing? I’m thinking of the way words such as theses or octopuses sometimes have their end-syllables humorously reduplicated to become theseses(es…), etc.

  • Actually, I think it’s a way to distinguish between “your uncle’s” – meaning the one man – and “your uncles’s” because they are a pair of uncles, and simply pronouncing both morphemes. “Your parents’s” would only really work if it was in a context of, say, a divorced and remarried set: “which of your parents’s house are you at this weekend?” for instance.

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