The Apostrophe: Should It Stay or Go?

Dealing with the apostrophe can be undoubtedly frustrating. It often seems that everyone is misusing this small diacritical mark. Names such as “Mens Hair Styling” and “Dads Favorite Shop” are not uncommon among professional establishments. Text messaging and newspaper writing are a whole different story. Such frequency in misuse leads many to believe that the apostrophe should be abolished from the English language. If it’s gone, there’ll one less rule to remember, right? Well, not exactly. There’ll be way more complications than anyone can possibly imagine.

Learning rules about the apostrophe is not an insurmountable task. With a little bit of patience and persistence, anyone can accomplish it.  Basically, it is needed in the following instances:

  • To indicate contractions, such as “I’m,” “you’re,” “he’s,” and “she’s,” as well as “can’t” and “won’t”
  • To mark the possessive case, such as “cat’s” or “dog’s
  • To mark plurals of letters, such as “i’s” and “a’s,” when necessary

While singular nouns require an additional “s” after the apostrophe, plurals don’t need one. Most of the confusion arises when an acronym or a name ending in “s” needs to be put in the possessive case.  Here are some basic rules.

  • Classical names, such as Socrates, do not need an extra “s” in the possessive case. This letter is also optional for Western names, such as Keats and Harris.
  • Plural last names, such as Ellises, don’t need “s” similarly to other plurals ending in that letter.
  • Acronyms and numbers don’t require the apostrophe when used in the plural form

Ambiguity can be caused by the pronouns “it’s” and “its”.  The first represents the contraction form of “it is,” while the latter is simply “it” written in the possessive case. Once you master this rule, everything else becomes straightforward.

Abolishing the apostrophe will create new and confusing homographs, such as “were,” “well,” “Ill,” and “hell”. Together with misuse of commas, lack of the apostrophe can spell real trouble. Imagine the following sentences: “Well look at that,” “were late,” or “nurses home flooded.” Some may argue that the meaning can be easily guessed from the context. However, I don’t see a reason why we need to create more room for confusion by eradicating the apostrophe.

There are many other complicated grammatical rules in the English language besides those connected to the apostrophe. These include, but are not limited to, the use of commas, semicolons, modal auxiliaries, articles, and conjunctions. This already extensive list excludes all of the irregular verbs in English that can be remembered only through memorization and/or frequent use. If we were to eliminate all sources for potential confusion, half of our language would be gone. So the best thing to do is preserve and to continue learning.

Resources

 “Using Apostrophes in Awkward Plurals.” Grammar Monster. http://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/apostrophes_show_plural_of_abbreviations.htm.

Crystal, David. The Fight for English, How the Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Langley, William. “When theyre gone, well all be struggling with English.” The Telegraph, January 31, 2009.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4413752/When-theyre-gone-well-all-be-struggling-with-English.html.

McArthur, Tom and Feri McArthur. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Nordquist, Richard. “Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly.” About.com, 2014.http://grammar.about.com/od/punctuationandmechanics/tp/GuideApostrophe.htm.

Room, Adrian. “Axing the Apostrophe.” English Today 5:3 (1989): 21-23.

The Apostrophe Protection Society. “The Correct Use of the Apostrophe in English.”http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/page2.html.

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