Should we be sad that the Apostrophe Protection Society has decided to throw in the towel? Apparently they have decided that “ ’ ” is a lost cause. The apathy of the hoi polloi hath puddled their clear spirit. That enigmatic Pimpernel of Punctuation, visiting shop frontages by night with the stealth of Banksy, not so much to insert missing elements as to delete superfluous ones (“Fresh pea’s and bean’s”) has put his paint brush into the can of turpentine for the last time.
Should we mourn? After all, George Bernard Shaw was minded to drop his apostrophes in words, as he would spell them, like “dont” and “wont”. So there is a literary precedent. Maybe the apostrophe really is redundant. What purpose does it serve? Well, it’s (sic) probably worth rehearsing, as it appears that people genuinely struggle with its (sic) correct use. The apostrophe indicates a missing letter. Hence, returning to the Shavian example, “I don’t” means “I do not”. It’s easy. That is, it is easy. Its value is clear. That is, the apostrophe’s value is clear. Then again, maybe not. What about “won’t”? “I won’t” means “I will not”. It’s all a question of euphony. “I willn’t” is difficult to say (the Scots “I willnae” is much easier). You can see there has been an evolution during which the apostrophe’s precise function has become corrupted. So maybe people who struggle with apostrophes have a point. Chambers defines “its” as possessive or genitive of “it”, and points out that “its” did not appear in English until the end of the 16th century, the older form being “his”. “Its” does not appear in the 1611 King James Authorised Version of the Bible, although it was subsequently inserted in 1660 (Leviticus chapter 25, verse 5). (Incidentally, once in the bowels of Glasgow University library I had the privilege of holding in my hand – I wasn’t even wearing white gloves – a volume whose previous owner had written on the inside cover – “John Donne his book.”) We would write “John Donne’s book” – so again we see the apostrophe stands in for a missing letter or letters.
German has a genitive case but sees no use for the apostrophe. Die Zähne des Kindes waren faul geworden. The child’s teeth had decayed. Interestingly, there is some evidence that the genitive case is withering in German, in favour of the dative. Die fünfte Sinfonie von Beethoven. German elides lots of words just as English does. The German en route to the movies does not say “Ich gehe in das Kino” but rather “Ich gehe ins Kino” and certainly not “in’s Kino”. There’s also a tendency amongst young people to drop the convention of spelling all nouns with a capital letter. You can see that the digital age has got a lot to do with this. How many of us using a search engine like Google bother to use capital letters when typing in an instruction to search, such as “demise society preservation apostrophe”? What is the point of addressing a machine with nicety of style? Young Germans are also dropping the ancient orthography of the scharfes s or eszett (ß) in favour of ss.
Perhaps there is a worldwide trend in action here. Since most communication among “the younger set” seems to be via text, Facebook, Twitter, What’s App and a myriad of platforms I’ve never heard of, maybe language is turning into George Orwell’s dystopian version of Esperanto, Newspeak. Maybe the dropped apostrophe is just the thin end of the wedge. Do we have any need for punctuation at all? Here, the literary precedent is James Joyce, and the famous monologue of Mollie Bloom at the end of Ulysses.
I hope Ill never be like her wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk
Come to think of it, do we really need to leave spaces between the words? Email addresses largely miss them out. Comeandjoinus@willothewsisp.com
It’s a nightmare. I’m going to get out my tub of whitewash, and start patrolling the High Street by night.