"Losing the Apostrophic War," by Meredy Amyx






Losing the Apostrophic War

     Quantities of aggrieved and overwrought prose have been expended on the misuse of apostrophes, especially with -s plurals, a phenomenon that has grown and spread with bubonic vigor in the past decade or so. Some defenders of the language have seen the struggle against this contagion as a battle if not all-out war.

     Here are some authentic, not invented, examples of apostrophes I’ve seen in use lately:

Peco’s Bill
Miley Cyru’s
Wales’ (the country)
What doe’s it mean when...

     (The last author gets credit, at least, for not spelling the word as “dose,” a variant that is becoming increasingly popular. No extra points to the one who wrote: “What do’s it mean when….”)
     These atrocities are in addition to anomalous -’s plurals and, of course, that maddening rampant “it’s” that utterly confounds legions of the well-intentioned.
     One day recently, in a bit of a mood, I reacted to the fourth or fifth e-mail communication in a row from a documentation colleague in which he had used apostrophes to mark all his plurals. “I just have to ask,” I said, not even apologizing first. “Why are you doing this? Why?” (With some effort, I refrained from sending him to Bob the Angry Flower for a well-deserved tongue-lashing.) His cheery reply: “I can never remember where they go, so I figure I’m always safe to put them in.” A professional writer, no less.
     Recalling a newspaper article I read about English learners in which one was quoted as saying that his teacher had told him he needed to learn only one tense of the verb, I wonder if there are teachers out there who really are saying, “Don’t bother to learn where apostrophes go. If an s comes at the end, put one in. People will know what you mean.”
     And the hell of it is that for the most part, people do.
     What strikes me as so odd about this relatively recent explosion of indiscriminate apostrophizing is that the usual path of linguistic evolution is toward simplicity and economy. While we are witnessing the erosion of the past perfect, the loss of the possessive-with-gerund construction, the extinction of the subjunctive, and Miss Thistlebottom’s systematic eradication of the very valuable passive, how is it that the humble apostrophe has been mounted like a diadem to crown all the terminal esses? Given the examples above, I expect to start seeing it in medial positions, without any regard to significance. Perhaps our grandchildren will study Engli’sh compo’sition.
     Or worse, perhaps they won’t.
     To tell you the truth, I would feel better if all the apostrophes atrophied and fell off, as would seem logical in this age of texting minimalism, than I do to see them as empty symbols distributed randomly and arbitrarily, mocking the meaning they once had.
     If there’s any comfort at all here for me, it’s in the thought that in some way, by some dim light, the folks who are adding the extra stroke are trying to get it right, no matter how misguidedly. And that’s why I think that in our present climate of constraining people’s choices for their own good, some fascistic software company that owns the favorite writing tool of millions will step in and make sure that no one can ever mess up a good English plural with a stray apostrophe again. And so the die will be cast.
     It’s my belief that in the foreseeable future—maybe within the lifetime of our children—we will see the apostrophe fused to the s typographically for permanent use, just as we have the dot fused to the i and the j. There will be no distinction between s and ’s. Perhaps the enhanced character will look something like one of these:
     Kindly note that this prediction is made with all due gloom. I think that the battle is lost and that the reasoned use of this once-serviceable mark of punctuation is past salvaging. So in anticipating the innovation, I’m only telling you what I see ahead; I would never dream of advocating it.
     In the end, ignorance always holds the trump card because it is unpredictable and defies the rules in exactly the same way that guerrilla fighters can best uniformed troops marching in formation. It may take a universal s, improved by that all-purpose stroke, to set the terms of a truce. Then we die-hards who have vowed never to surrender won’t actually have to capitulate. The option will simply be taken away from us: the price of peace.

Copyright © 2008 Meredy Amyx.
"Losing the Apostrophic War" was completed on June 19, 2008. This essay appeared in the July 2008 issue of Intelligencer, the newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, and the July 2008 issue of WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers Club.