To the undoubted dismay of pedants worldwide, it seems the war against the misplaced, omitted or unwanted apostrophe has been lost. The Apostrophe Protection Society, founded in 2001 to campaign for the proper use of the punctuation mark, is no more. Its founder, John Richards, 96, declared at the weekend that he was ending his crusade. Or, rather, surrendering. ‘With regret I have to announce that after some 18 years, I have decided to close the Apostrophe Protection Society,’ he declared on his website. ‘We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!’
There have always been types who believe the wrong usage of an apostrophe is indicative of a society in which standards are slipping and civilisation itself is in decline. ‘The so-called “greengrocer’s apostrophe”’, observed The Spectator’s Sam Leith in Write To The Point ‘is great nourishment to the outrage of sticklers.’ Mr Richards used to get fifty letters and emails a week from furious types deploring the misuse of the apostrophe, citing everyday horrors such as ‘No dog’s’, ‘Tiles, toilets, tool’s’ and ‘Chicken’s and egg’s’.
The closure of the Apostrophe Protection Society will only confirm their suspicion that we are all going to hell in a handcart. The barbarians have truly stormed the gates, armed to the teeth with their carrot’s, cocktail’s and book’s from Waterstones.
Of course, there is a time and a place for the correct usage of the apostrophe, to indicate missing letters (‘he’s a greengrocer’) or ownership (‘Mark’s house’). Everyone should be taught this at school, because correct English usage matters in civic life, not least when you are applying for a job. Incorrect English is interpreted as a sign of laziness or stupidity. Hell, your potential employer might even be fussy about split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, so it’s important that you don’t necessarily make any mistakes or transgressions on your job application.
The correct usage of apostrophes also matters in areas where clarity is of the utmost importance, such as in a court of law or in legal documents. ‘The Kray’s guilt’ is different to ‘the Krays’ guilt’. Likewise, ‘the defendant’s brother’s gun’ can have multiple meanings depending on where you place the apostrophes.
Apart from such specific cases, apostrophe usage really is of little consequence. Language is foremost about communication and understanding, and its misuse or misapplication only matters when it leads to confusion or bewilderment. For instance, if street signs in Wales were only in Welsh, Anglophones would rightly have something to grumble about.
A wrongly placed apostrophe, or its absence, has never confused anybody (except, perhaps, first time readers of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), or had catastrophic consequences. No one except the most grotesque pedant has asked a greengrocer what object belongs to the carrot in question, or what the carrot ‘is’. No one pays much attention to the difference between a Sainsbury’s and a Waterstones store, DVDs and DVD’s on sale, Earl’s Court and Barons Court tube stations, or the fact that in West London it’s the King’s Road at one end and the Kings’ Road the other.
We all intuitively know when an apostrophe denotes abbreviation or ownership. When it suggests plurality most of us know it shouldn’t be there. And most of the time we don’t notice either way. Even when the apostrophe is dropped by the likes of Waterstones, most reasonable people understand that this is for commercial motives of brevity – especially in an age when internet addresses matter.
Pedantry over apostrophes is a relatively recent thing, which is why you don’t see it on historic street names. I used to live on a street called St Georges Road, given that appellation in the early 18th century when people weren’t fussy about how the apostrophe was used to denote ownership (in this case, its proximity to St George’s Hall). I guarantee no one has ever got lost because of the absence of a punctuation mark in a street name.
The rules – or should we say customs – governing the use of the apostrophe today were only formalised in the mid-19th century. ‘The validity of some of these rules was disputed not long after their formulation,’ writes the eminent linguist David Crystal in The Penguin Dictionary of Language, ‘and it is not too surprising, therefore, that we should be left a century later with a legacy of unease, and that many adults as well as children should find the use of the form difficult.’
We should, naturally, take objection to the misuse of the apostrophe in formal writing. You shouldn’t expect it in a newspaper, but it’s normal in everyday usage, just as everyday speech breaks the rules of English grammar. So forgive the greengrocer for his needless apostrophe, just as he won’t take objection to your double negatives, dangling participles, your usage of the past indicative (‘if I was’) instead of the proper past subjunctive (‘if I were’), or request ‘can I have some apples?’, when you should have asked ‘may I have some apples?’ instead.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017).