Apostrophe warrior lays down his sword

Aspects of the english language

The apostrophe plays a weak role in writing and none at all in speech.  That’s a problem.



Athen’s Pizza

          (Sign on restaurant in Jaffrey, NH)

Former copy editor John Richards has decided to surrender in his 20-year quest to promote correct (i.e., prescribed/codified) apostrophe usage.

Richards and like-minded crusaders are enraged by (i) use of the apostrophe in plurals and (ii) in possessive it’s (which I’ve seen many times on signs and websites and in print) and (iii) omission in other possessives where it does belong (Barclays).

But the violations continue.  The final s becomes so closely linked with the apostrophe that it can intrude even when here’s no morphemic split between it and the preceding – see example at top.

Conceding defeat

 So I really sympathize with Richards, who just gave it up.


But his efforts were doomed. Nowadays, he says, he hardly gets any emails about it.  Other people are giving up too, apparently.

The obstacles proved insurmountable:


(1) There are three separate usage principles that must be understood and applied, cf. (i)-(iii).

(2) The variants all sound alike, so the apostrophe carries no informational value in speech and not much in writing, where, without the punctuation,context would almost always tell you which usage is intended.

Thus, given the informational weakness of the apostrophe and its complete absence from speech, the mark is a likely place for variability.

Basic concepts

(3) Accurately applying the prescriptive rules is a two-part intellectual feat, involving the mastery of two basic concepts of word-suffix relations — plural and possessive (the latter overextended to it’s).

So…do people who do not apply these concepts consistently lack some intellectual capacity?  Has their school system failed them?

Is it, as Richards says, “ignorance and laziness”?  Many highly educated people use the other variants discussed below.  Are they ignorant and lazy?  Or maybe it’s that the apostrophe mis-users don’t understand the social consequences — or maybe they don’t care about precise adherence to traditional/prestige-conventional manner?

Maybe the it’s/its distinction is uniquely problematic: the other possessive pronouns have -s forms (yours, ours) are already possessive without the -s whereas it looks like that countless nouns that form possessives with the apostrophe.  Therefore it’s = ‘belonging to it.’

When a nutrition specialist writes “to somehow make the leap that just because feedlot beef has it’s issues, that a fake processed GMO soy burger like Impossible Burger is healthier, is quite a shocking bit of brainwashing.”…is he ignorant or lazy?

Maybe it’s one or more of the above.  l

Perfect usage?

But who’s perfect?  How about hone in on?

The CORRECT word is home, as in homing pigeon. But hone connotes sharpness and focus, and besides, it sounds like the other one.  I’ve now observed hone in on in print, more than once.  I’m not going to use it, thought I’ve heard a number of bright people do so.  Maybe that makes it more acceptable.

Do you say “nu-cu-lar” for nuclear? I’ve heard high-level military people use it.

Here’s another: criteria, data and media are structurally plural (‘more than one medium, datum, or criterion’) but now treated as singular (“The media is always…” [fill in your complaint]).  Done deal.

New scourge

Alas.  For one brave fighter, the apostrophe wars are over.  But just as with the unemployed revenue agents who, after Prohibition, went to fight the drug wars, Mr. Richards and his colleagues can now set their sights on another class of atrocities.

Maybe it’s commas.  Richards says, “The use of commas is appalling.”

Again, the whole controversy is in the written language: speech has pause, pitch, intonation (what’s generally called “prosody”) to fulfill comma functions and disambiguate series of nouns, verbs, phrases, and the like.

And comma use really does make a difference, as Lynn Truss noted in her 2004 book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which lays out comma rules and attacks confusion with a “zero-tolerance” approach.

Truss and colleagues seem to have the comma issue well-covered, but they can always use Richards’ help.

Special properties of quotation marks

Still, there’s another enemy that plagues our language….THE QUOTATION MARK SCOURGE!  Dozens of uses, some traditional, some quite idiosyncratic.   Some writers use quotes for “certain” words, and I can’t figure out what they’re saying.

The quotes have the added subtlety of being about the utterance in which they occur, as with the common meaning ‘so-called.’  And they are the only punctuation mark that is regularly acted out — the beloved/hated “air quotes.”

Yes, the Scourge is coming to a sign near you, if it’s not already there.

What are we to make of “Live” Nude Girls?  Are they zombies?  #punctuation #apostrophe