Save the Apostrophe!

I have always had a very traditional writing style.  Unlike other students I knew in various writing courses, I was never too keen on experimenting with poetry-prose syntax, stream-of-conscious narration, or the abolition of punctuation.  I remember when all the kids in the poets’ clique went through the “no commas” phase, where they did away with complex sentences, opting instead for the Hemingway-esque chain of clauses linked together with “and, and, and.”  The most radical of them all used ampersands instead of the actual word.

While there is much to be said for revolutionary writing, smashing the system, and all of that, I’ve found that unless you’re very, very good at it, experimental writing is practically unreadable.  Though, of course, to get very, very good at it you have to practice and persevere your way through the stages of unreadability—it’s not for me, is what I’m saying.  There are plenty of linguists and writers insisting that the English language has evolved beyond its need for punctuation, and to this I say NO!  Punctuation is a pain to learn and deal with, but it’s a necessary constraint we use to bring order to our words.  If anything, we need more punctuation.  Bring back the interrobang!  British Isles, start using the oxford comma!

Cartoonist Judy Horacek anticipated the need for such a superhero.

Cartoonist Judy Horacek anticipated the need for such a superhero.

I recently read an article calling for the death of the apostrophe, viewing it as an unnecessary and outdated punctuation mark.  Regarding grammatically incorrect sentences, the author states, “the meaning is clear even when the apostrophe is used wrongly or omitted.”  He argues that contractions like “isnt, arent, wasnt” are self-explanatory without the apostrophe, and even words like “cant” and “wont” that could be mistaken for the nouns we would be able to discern by context.  We would soon grow accustomed to the strange way the words look, he claims, and soon we wouldn’t even notice their absence.  Plus, he argues, George Bernard Shaw didn’t use apostrophes.  Well, George Bernard Shaw was George Bernard Shaw.  Become a master playwright and then you too can play around with the English language according to your whims.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw did away with apostrophes in his writing.  You are not George Bernard Shaw.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw did away with apostrophes in his writing. You are not George Bernard Shaw.

Plenty of people use the apostrophe wrong, it’s true.  It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me when I see people mixing up “it’s” and “its,” not to mention “they’re,” “there,” and “their,” or when I see an apostrophe-s used to denote a plural.  But that doesn’t mean the system’s broken or that apostrophes are unnecessary; it means people should be better instructed in their use.  Just the other day I had a situation that illustrated perfectly why context isn’t always enough to discern a word’s meaning without an apostrophe: I was sitting in a café eating pie, and across from me there sat an elderly gentleman with a cup of coffee.  The waitress came over and asked him if he’d like some dessert to which he loudly responded, nodding towards me, “No thanks, looking at the girl’s is all the dessert I need.”  I laughed politely and went back to my pie, and then it occurred it me that perhaps he’d actually meant, “looking at the girls is all the dessert I need.”  Had I laughed at not a dorky joke but a creepy old man’s sexist remark?  Had I accidentally contributed to perpetuating a culture of objectifying women?

The dual meaning of his words probably occurred to the man too, because he hunched uncomfortably over his table until he’d finished his coffee, and when he left he paused and sheepishly said to me, “Enjoy your pie.”  The point of this story is that apostrophes are important, and the prevention of such awkward misunderstandings is reason enough to keep them around.  Language evolves, yes, and plenty of grammar and punctuation constructs are phased out once we don’t need them anymore.  But to conspicuously remove something just to cater to the people who don’t know how to use it is inorganic and destructive to the English language as a whole.

What are your thoughts on the apostrophe?

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