Saturday, January 31, 2009

Apostrophe's Extinction Signals Apocalypse's Arrival

(image: representation of an apostrophe, or of a tear, or of both)

One occasional reader of this blog relayed a link to a news story which reports that new or replaced street signs that once contained apostrophes will no longer contain them because "they're confusing and old fashioned"--the apostrophes, not the signs or decision-makers, apparently.

The link:,2933,486144,00.html

That this event should occur in Britain, where precise men with incendiary tempers such as A.E. Housman, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pope once strode the earth (owing to some infirmities, Byron and Pope hobbled a bit, no worries), strikes an apostrophe-lover with a combination of punches.

Nonetheless, we who teach English and/or care about the language saw this one coming decades ago, for the apostrophe has been disappearing from college papers (for example--this is not to put the blame on college students) for a long time. We "correct" the papers, write something in the margin, perhaps even spend seconds in class discussing the apostrophe. The students, ignore our corrections, marginalia, and blather, as they should. They are college students. They have certain duties to uphold. Each has his or her role in the academy.

And having studied German, I knew that the possessive apostrophe had disappeared long ago.

Nonetheless, let me point out that the reasoning behind the decision to eliminate the apostrophe would not pass muster with Hume's (or Humes) or any philosopher's big toe, not considered the seat of logic.

The apostrophe's old-fashioned? Well, so is printing itself, which dates back to the 15th century. So is the monarchy. So are those goddamned wigs they wear in court over there. I say the wigs should go first; then maybe we'll pretend to discuss the demise of the apostrophe. The apostrophe has a clear semiotic use. The wig has a murky one, at best. The apostrophe is unobtrusive. The wig is not, and I'd (Id) be willing to bet that those wigs stink. I've never known an apostrophe to need a good cleaning or to harbor fleas.

Confusing? Imagine a sign that read St. John's Wood. Or St. John's Wood, One Kilometer. I'm just not feeling the confusion coming from either sign.

Now consider a sign that says William's Pub. Then one that says Williams Pub. The first sign is not confusing. The pub belongs to William, or at least William figures or figured in the history of the pub. Such niceties may be sorted out nicely in the pub over a pint, but they are niceties, not sources of confusion. Now consider the second sign. Is it William's Pub, singular? Williams' Pub, plural--the pub owned by the Williams family? One is so disgusted by the lack of clarity that one will go to another pub.

One might assert that the absence of an apostrophe will either have no effect (let's [or lets] be generous and say 10% of the time) or will, indeed, cause confusion, an absence of precision being more likely to create confusion than a persence of precision (that is my assumption)

Let us further assume that those in charge, or what Gogol called Persons of Consequence, are lying. They want to to save money and time, which are the same thing in their minds. It takes X amount of time to punch an apostrophe into a sign and then paint it. Multiply by Y, and you have an amount (illusory, of course) that you are saving. Read Dickens' [or I guess I should write Dickens and surrender) Hard Times for a flavor of this mentality.

Or maybe this is their revenge on English teachers!

I don't (I mean dont) like the slothful use of "old fashioned," unsupported by data, although my use of slothful begged the question, I grant. I don't like an assertion concerning "useless" when the assertion is not followed closely by reasoning, logic, or at least something dressed as good sense.

I like the apostrophe. It adds clarity. Nonetheless, I let it go long ago, even as I ritualisitically point out its absence (or should I write it's absence?) or its incorrect presence in papers.

With the impending official demise of the apostrophe in England, the apocaplyse's, I mean the apocolypses, intial phase has begun. Whats a person to do? Store a years worth of food? :-)

Listen, this is how loyal, to a fault, not just to people but apostrophes I am: In those rare instances when I use my telephone to "text" (sigh, text is a verb), I use the apostrophe. What percentage of texters use it? I would guess 1% at most. Nonetheless, all hail the corporate design-dude or design-dudette who allowed the phone to be programmed to include an apostrophe. Hes my hero or shes my hero, of sorts. I mean he's my hero or she's my hero.

National Lampoon might write the headline this way: ENGLAND BAN'S [SIC] APOSTROPHE, GOES IMMEDIATELY TO HELL'S ANTECHAMBER.

"Should all apostrophes be forgot and ne-ver come to mind . . . ." Cue tears, pull out handkerchief, head to William's Pub.
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