Sunday 1 December 2019

Apostrophes: A Battle Lost

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the Apostrophe Protection Society has closed down.
  This little pressure group was founded 18 years ago for the sole purpose of resisting the incorrect use of the apostrophe in English, as in 'it's' for 'its' or the all too common 'greengrocer's [or indeed greengrocers'] apostrophe', as in 'Best Carrot's 50p lb', etc. The founder of the society, who is now 96 years old and, reasonably enough, cutting back on his activities, has concluded, with regret, that the battle is lost, and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won'.
I fear he is right that this particular battle is lost: I come across 'it's' for 'its' all the time, often used by otherwise perfectly literate people, and the conviction, especially among traders, that an apostrophe denotes a plural remains firmly entrenched. A striking example of the latter can be seen on the approach to the west terminal at Victoria, where some years ago a railway worker painted on the wall the warning 'Mind Spike's'. Whatever he wrote it in, it has proved remarkably durable, quite possibly outliving the spikes themselves and no doubt infuriating many a passing apostrophist. Spike's what?
  Does the apostrophe matter that much? Although it's clearly preferable that it's used correctly, I don't think it's ever likely to result in a confusion of meaning or a loss of nuance. Other lost battles have robbed the language of useful distinctions, e.g. the now ubiquitous 'forever' used indiscriminately to cover both English usages: 'for ever', meaning for all time, and 'forever', meaning all the time, or continually, as in 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'. Another battle now almost completely lost is that for 'different from': even upmarket journalists are now happy to use not only 'different to' but even 'different than'. Though it grates, it doesn't matter too much, but it does separate the adjective from its verb of origin and slightly blurs the sense of that word. And then there's the almost universal use of 'amount of' for countable things, as in 'the amount of people'. It seems that not a lot of people [spot the deliberate error]  know this is incorrect. But that's enough pedantry from me.
  I hope the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society is wrong in his broader point and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times' have not won. Or at least not anywhere it really matters.


  1. You’re right: there can’t be many cases where meaning is either clarified or obscured by apostrophes. But that’s not their real purpose. They’re a sort of secret handshake by which you identify people you’d like to meet. I always read the Times online because of all the feedback to individual articles which doesn’t appear in the print version. If people take care to write grammatically and put apostrophes in the right place, then you take them seriously on other matters. (Well, I do.) Slipshod thought and slipshod usage usually go together. Elitist, I know, but there was a time when elites were considered a good thing and worth being a member of.

  2. Quite so, Ingoldsby – but the trouble is that nowadays I find even people I know to be literate, intelligent and to all appearances sound are sadly liable to lapse into 'it's' for 'its'. Not, however, 'your' for 'you're'. Yet.