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Monday, March 18, 2013

Outrage at the end of the road for the misunderstood apostrophe

Come on, people. Knowing when to use apostrophes correctly is no more difficult than knowing which shoe goes on the right foot and which shoe goes on the left foot.

We surely don't need to eliminate the apostrophe, as planned for street names in an English locale and discussed in this article and this article.

With one simple exception, the apostrophe has only two uses, to show possession and to show omission. Here's how I put it in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual:

First, it often shows possession: Dan Lindler's appointment. And second, it often marks the omission of letters in contractions and other words or numbers in years and decades: he'll, won't, finger lickin' good, the class of '68, the '90s.
Do not use apostrophes to make a word plural, with one exception:
Apostrophes never make a word plural, but they may be used to mark the plural of single letters and abbreviations with internal punctuation: Dot your i's. She got straights A's on her report card, M.A.'s Ph.D.'s. Don't use it in forming plurals of decades: the '70s, the 1980s, not '70's, the 1980's.
I refuse to be objective on this matter. Anyone proposing to do away with the apostrophe because it's hard to use is wrong. 

Update, March 19: I just read that the Devon council is not going to implement the planned change in punctuation. Said Peter Hare-Scott, leader of the Mid Devon Council:
The convention not to use apostrophes when naming new streets has been in place since long before this administration took over. Personally, I'm not happy about using English that's incorrect and don't find this acceptable.
Perhaps the folks quoted below in the original articles convinced him it was a bad idea.

Steve Jenner, spokesman for the Plain English Campaign:
It is as if the council is saying it simply doesn’t fancy apostrophes now. What if they don’t like commas or full stops or capital letters?
There is no need to murder the apostrophe, it is very much needed in the English language.
Mary de Vere Taylor, a proofreader from Ashburton:
It’s almost as though somebody with a great big eraser is trying to erase punctuation from our consciousness.
Language has to evolve and change but this is a backwards step rather than a forwards step. It is as if something intrinsic to English education is being wiped out because it’s not needed or people assume they don’t need it. It does grate very, very deeply.
There’s something terribly reassuring about well-written and well-punctuated writing.
Some may say I should get a life and get out more, but if I got out more and saw place names with no apostrophes where there should be, I shudder to think how I’d react.
Again, Steve Jenner, spokesperson for The Plain English Campaign and radio presenter:
It's nonsense. Where's it going to stop. Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?
If it's to try to make things clearer, it's not going to work. The whole purpose of punctuation is to make language easier to understand. Is it because someone at the council doesn't understand how it works?
Sian Harris, lecturer in English literature at Exeter University:
Usually the best way to teach about punctuation is to show practical examples of it – removing [apostrophes] from everyday life would be a terrible shame and make that understanding increasingly difficult. English is a complicated language as it is — removing apostrophes is not going to help with that at all.
Ben Bradshaw, the former culture secretary and Labour MP for Exeter:
Tory Mid Devon Council bans the apostrophe to 'avoid confusion' … Whole point of proper grammar is to avoid confusion!

The articles linked above are featured today, March 18, in Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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