It’s Halloween, so I’m going to share something that might seem scary to some…
I am giving up apostrophes!
Not forever. Just for a month. I was first prompted by this suggestion that I saw on Twitter recently:
And I thought, sure, why not? Could be an interesting challenge! And then, in the responses to this tweet, I came across James Harbeck‘s excellent (and potentially tongue-in-cheek, but let’s run with it) article Kill The Apostrophe!. As he explains* very persuasively:
- Most of them don’t add anything useful.
- George Bernard Shaw did it and so can you.
- Many apostrophes are really only there for condescension.
- Even where an apostrophe can add something useful, we usually get by without it.
- They add confusion.
- It will free them up for use as single quotes.
- It will make the rules better.
For my part, it was mainly a combination of reasons 3 and 4 that prompted me to take part in this month-long experiment/challenge. Language does many things but one way that people sometimes (ab)use it is in an arrogant effort to exercise power and demonstrate their superiority over others. This kind of aggressive assertion of authority by the self-appointed language police is just downright obnoxious—and it says far more about the offended than the offender.
OK, so you’ve spotted a greengrocer’s apostrophe. Do you really need to point this out to anyone or to lose even a moment’s mental tranquility over it? It might make you feel smart to have noticed such an appalling atrocity, but what are those few seconds of smug self-satisfaction really worth? Will this improve your social relationships somehow? (Alright, maybe it will improve your relationships with other pedants or bullies, and if those are the ones you want to nurture, well, more fool you.)
As this tweet points out, people generally manage to communicate just fine despite potential competing meanings, differences in register or “errors”, thanks to wonderful things like context and the Cooperative Principle. Most of the time, we want to understand each other, and a particular (mis)use of an apostrophe won’t normally get in the way.
What’s more, I remember reading as a Linguistics undergrad something that always stayed in my mind: there has never been a “golden age” where everybody agreed on precisely how or when to use apostrophes. (And of course, I’ve long since forgotten the original source, but I think it might have been this chapter by Watts. In any case, googling reveals that many authors appear to have used similar phrasing to point out that prescriptive “rules” of language are rarely universally agreed and applied, even by those “educated” people who “should know better”.)
(Incidentally, scare quotes throughout this post reflect my stance but also just… because Halloween.)
So, following Talk the Talk’s lead, I’ve decided to go without apostrophes for the duration of November** and see what happens. (My prediction: nothing more eventful than a few people pointing out my “mistakes” and lots of swearing and undo-sending whenever my phone and laptop innocently but overzealously autocorrect my deliberately apostrophe-less typing.)
I confess, the tiny bit of my brain that is all too human in its need for order and method, the bit that most commonly reveals itself by tweeting moments of linguistic cognitive dissonance with the hashtag #ImADescriptivistBut, does feel a bit uneasy about this due to its long-standing fondness for apostrophes. And I’m not so radical as to suggest that all “rules” that are invented (yes, invented) to standardise language usage are pointless and that everything would be just hunky-dory if nobody ever followed them.
But there are 2 major flaws with the “BUT NOBODY WILL UNDERSTAND YOU” argument so commonly levelled at the apparently apostrophically challenged:
- Clearly, some kind of common linguistic ground has to be established in order for people generally to communicate effectively. But—and this is the important point—for effective communication to depend on adherence to a specific rule, both parties have to know the rules. If a greengrocer writes “apple’s, 50p” and an apple-desiring customer thinks it should say “apples, 50p” but the message is still evidently communicated effectively and the customer manages to smoothly complete their apple purchase, then this result obviously did not depend on a shared understanding of how to use apostrophes “correctly”.
- Similarly, insisting that everybody consistently follow specific apostrophe rules presupposes that this is the only way to communicate particular meanings unambiguously (and also implies that accidental ambiguity is a very grave offence). But while it’s certainly more important to make one’s intended meaning explicit in writing (as opposed to in speech, when it’s easier to clarify potential misunderstandings immediately), there are almost always several ways to express something; and it seems highly unlikely that a potentially ambiguous apostrophe usage couldn’t just be avoided by recasting the phrase in question.
On this second point, arguments like this one have more than a vague whiff of straw-clutching:
I mean, this is true—but why adamantly enforce an arbitrary rule, transgression of which rarely has any dire real-world consequences, based on the infinitesimally small off-chance that you find yourself writing about possessions belonging to individuals or groups of people named George(s)?
Let’s be reasonable. It’s actually very hard to think of many examples where a “misplaced” or “misused” apostrophe would really have terrible consequences. In cases where it would—I’m thinking of some kind of legal document, for example—then fair enough, let’s make sure everything is expressed unambiguously. But this seems to be a rule appropriate for a very specific community of practice, rather than something the general population really needs to be worrying so much about.
Yes, sometimes syntactic ambiguity in particular has amusing results; but these instances are amusing precisely because we can simultaneously appreciate both the intended meaning and the accidental alternative interpretation. Language is often ambiguous and, generally speaking, we get along just fine. And when we don’t, it’s rarely because our message was muddied by a misplaced (or missing) apostrophe.
What’s more, if a scenario arose in which communication really did break down because of a genuinely ambiguous apostrophe usage, I suspect that the instinctive reaction of the reader would be, “Hang on, does the writer mean X or Y?” and not “HOW DARE YOU PUT AN APOSTROPHE IN A PLACE WHERE ITS PURPOSE IS NOT WHOLLY CLEAR, THUS RECKLESSLY JEOPARDISING OUR CHANCES OF COMMUNICATIVE SUCCESS?” But that wouldn’t be as funny, would it?
The point is, there’s a time and a place for enforcing prescriptive rules, but where apostrophes are concerned, we rarely see these times and places. We’re more likely to see things like this (all selected at random from Twitter today):
It’s quite clear that not one of these cases is a sincere attempt to seek clarification or to respectfully discuss patterns and rules of language usage, but rather just instance after puerile instance of unnecessarily pedantic nit-picking and superiority-signalling.
And it’s one thing—a pitiable thing, really—for some deep personal insecurity or general existential unease to manifest itself in the gleeful seizure of every possible opportunity to set other wayward individuals straight and thus exert some sense of control over a frighteningly chaotic world, full of unfair systems and power structures; but it’s little more than bullying, pure and simple, when someone feels compelled to object publicly to a person’s message/stance (or just to the person in general) without actually having any substantial objection to make, deciding instead to deliberately miss the point and poke holes in how the message was expressed, or indeed, punctuated.
Without self-confidence we are babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority—it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney—for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination—over other people.
Or, as James Harbeck puts it:
So. This is all well and good, but if it doesn’t really matter how anyone uses apostrophes anyway, why go to all the symbolic trouble of giving them up for a month?! (Not to mention imposing on myself the tech-related nuisance of disabling autocorrect across all my devices and therefore having to type much more slowly and carefully than I normally would, at least on my phone, plus having a lot more words than usual appear underlined with red squiggles.) I can think of 3 reasons:
- To actively make all the important linguistic points above—albeit potentially provocatively—by passively prompting people to notice the absence of commas and generating discussion around what “rules” really achieve, in theory and in practice.
- To put all these thoughts and observations to the test. Will I discover any times when dropping an apostrophe actually renders what I’m writing unclear? Will I notice anything else about my own language use (or that of other people) that I might not have noticed otherwise? Will other people react as I’d expect them to, or even notice at all?
- Come on; it’s fun! Other people decide to let their moustaches grow during November; I decide not to use apostrophes.
So… Whos with me?
Watts, R.J. (2000). Mythical strands in the ideology of prescriptivism. In L. Wright (ed.), The Development of Standard English 1300–1800 (pp. 11–28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Woolf, V. (1929). A room of one’s own. London: Hogarth Press.
*I’ve added apostrophes back in to James’s (or should that be James’?) words. After all, I’m not giving up apostrophes until tomorrow…
**I do a lot of writing in my line of work and, unfortunately, I suspect my clients would not like me to deliver work without apostrophes that will endure long past November. This is a temporary personal challenge, so I won’t apply it to longer-lasting written texts, such as papers I’m writing or editing for publication. Emails, instant messages, SMS and social media, however, are all fair game until 1 December 2019.
P.S. My experiment applies only to English. When writing in other languages (e.g. French), I’ll continue to follow their rules, as these aren’t always the same as in English and my knowledge of the potential impact of dropping them is much more limited. So I’ll keep things relatively simple this time, and maybe next year I’ll be more adventurous and try a multilingual apostrophe challenge!