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Is the Apostrophe the Endangered Species of Punctuation?

The Apostrophe Protection Society Closes its Doors and We Are Left to Wonder: What is the Fate of the Apostrophe?

The Apostrophe Protection Society is waving a white flag. The president of the organization, John Richards, made this announcement on the group’s website in November 2019:

First of all, who knew there was an Apostrophe Protection Society? I sure didn’t. The APS has been fighting an uphill battle to promote awareness of the misuse of this mark. But today, the apostrophe is not only being misused, it is being deliberately omitted.

Apostrophe Catastrophes (and Deal-breakers)

Apostrophes carry two functions: to indicate possession and to mark missing letters in contractions. One misuse occurs when it is wrongly inserted to make a noun plural, which commonly happens with acronyms or numbers: Since the 60’s, Send me the PDF’s, Learn the ABC’s; (correct: the 60s, PDFs and ABCs). Another mistake is neglecting to use an apostrophe with a possessive plural: the ladies room, sale on mens coats, free childrens toys; (correct: ladies’, men’s, children’s). When used generally, such as in signage, mistakes like this do not lead to much confusion or misunderstanding — but it is downright distracting!

Another misuse of the apostrophe is neglecting to include it in contractions: Youre finally here, Lets go, Its time to leave (correct: you’re, let’s, it’s). Conversely, placing an apostrophe in a word that isn’t supposed to have one can change its meaning: the cat licked it’s paws, the people we’re standing in the rain (correct: the cat licked its paws, the people were standing in the rain). One widely detested mistake is the interchanging of you’re/your, frequently noted in the profiles of people looking for love on dating apps as “a deal-breaker.”

My best friend recently texted, “Your a good friend.” And also, “How was you’re New Years?” Things like this used to make me cringe, but, after studying Copy-editing, Proofreading, and Fact-Checking at N.Y.U., I’m much less of a grammar snob. (I expected the reverse to be true). Copy editing is not solely about correcting mistakes — it’s about acting as a liaison between the writer and the reader so that the writer’s (or company) voice remains authentic, and the message is delivered smoothly and effectively. I came to realize that proper grammar has its place and that friendship is more important to me than being right. As long as I understand the message, that’s all that matters.

The Apostrophe is Losing a War with Time and Technology

Back when people penned letters, the process of writing took much longer, and the frequency of communication was not what it is today, so there was plenty of time to devote to the quality of the written word. These days, we are so connected to people and send a high volume of messages that punctuation is beginning to get crowded out in favor of the impact of immediate, shorter, punchier statements. It’s quite common — and becoming acceptable — to omit punctuation in short-form digital messages such as text, email, tweet, FB, Slack, etc. As these platforms take center stage in social and business communications, it’s more likely that an apostrophe is an afterthought. Literally, people look back and mentally post-edit, thinking, “I should’ve put an apostrophe there. Oh well, whatever.” It’s not that we don’t know how to use one; it’s that we don’t care enough nor have the time. It is almost assumed that your colleagues know the correct spelling and punctuation but that they simply lacked the time to insert it — or their auto-correct “incorrected” them.

When Auto-Correct is Auto-Incorrect

People are more forgiving these days due to errors posed by auto-correct and predictive text technology. Even though it is meant to catch/prevent errors, it can introduce errors where there were none. This occurs with slang and unconventional sentence structures, as well as with previous mistakes being added to your “dictionary.” So, once you make an error like dont, you will continue to be fed that error from your personal texting-style guide until you make an effort to teach the app your preference by fixing the error. I personally never spell out going to in a text message, because I find it clumsy; instead I have my auto-correct set to gonna when typing or dictating, because that’s, phonetically, more accurate. Newer generations — Millennials and Gen Zs — that grew up with texting make up more than a third of the workplace, and they have been influencing the standards and expectations of communication. This is how usage begins to evolve. Straddling the border between Millennial and Gen X, as much of a grammar geek as I am, I still tend to worry less about classical grammar (unless, of course, I am writing a cover letter or this blog post). Because, based on context, most apostrophe mistakes do not change the meaning of a message, as long as the reader can make assumptions based on the context of the conversation. For instance, “Lets get lunch” is no less understandable than “Let’s get lunch.” There is no other way to interpret that statement. Let is a verb and cannot be made plural. You don’t assume your mom doesn’t know how to spell — and you don’t dare correct her — you simply read it and respond.

Are Apostrophes Phasing Out?

I hope not. But we cannot control language — an ever-changing organism fed by usage, which is a bottom-up organization. Usage is what and how people speak and write. It is inconvenient to many, when typing a quick email or text on a smartphone, to break the flow of lettering to insert an apostrophe. It means either having to switch over to the symbol keyboard or hold down the comma key on an iPhone, hold down the letter x on a Samsung or do God knows what on a Swype keyboard to retrieve it. I don’t mean to advocate laziness; I’m just telling it like it is: The apostrophe is becoming an inconvenience.

The apostrophe isn’t the only punctuation mark in trouble. We’ve seen a decrease in the use of periods in short messages, advertising, and even emails. If the message is over, the sentence has clearly ended, so why bother with a period. However, the function of the period is shifting. In a text, the presence of a period can signal tone or emotion. “I don’t think so.” (with a period) may sound defensive or boundary-setting, whereas, “I don’t think so” (without a period) assumes a quizzical tone. I don’t see the function of the apostrophe shifting in that direction. So, if its two functions — possession and contraction — fall out of favor, then it may very well enter the endangered species list along with the semi-colon, which has failed to reinvent itself.

Writer, Copyeditor, and ESL Teacher. Lingthusiast and Native NYer. Ich lerne Deutsch.

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