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Abolish the apostrophe

I Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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1Muscogulus
Edited: May 15, 2012, 9:02pm Top

Here is a modest proposal for resolving all the confusion about when to insert an apostrophe: Never insert an apostrophe.

In ambiguous cases (such as cant/can’t, were/we're, wont/won't), context determines the meaning, as with any other synonym.

Its no wonder that the apostrophe confuses even sensible people. We use it to mark contractions, possession, and the occasional plural, and were not consistent about any of it. Its not as if English has always relied on the apostrophe. We borrowed it from French, a language that only uses the apostrophe to mark elision, as in l'homme.

Not content with a single use for the new mark, we ran wild, and we soon confused ourselves. In 16th-century texts, for instance, you find that people assumed that the possessive 's was a contraction of a possessive pronoun. So for instance the composer John Dowland decorates his work with such titles as "The Earl of Derby his Galliard." Dowland was no idiot. Yet he and others committed a crude back-formation caused by confusion about the role of the apostrophe-s.

Other Germanic languages dont need the apostrophe to mark possession, contractions, or plurals. The fact is that we dont need it either.

The dos and donts of apostrophes are neither logical nor intuitive. What they are is traditional.

Avid readers, especially those of us with an antiquarian streak, are liable to miss the apostrophe — much as we might miss the gratuitous spacing around the semicolon in 19th-century books, or the leading quotation mark at the head of each line of a paragraph of dialogue. But weve discarded those conventions, and were none the worse for it.

So Im serious when I say, "Lets get rid of the apostrophe." Its not a punctuation mark; its a bad habit. It stirs up anxiety and discouragement in young writers. It makes a dogs breakfast of signs and notices, sometimes obscuring their meaning.

I cant think of a drawback — aside from the reduced number of occasions for pedants to feel smug about their own mastery of punctuation. But this is a petty boon. Shouldnt we encourage simplicity and clarity?

SIGNO APOSTROPHI DELENDA EST

2Celebrimbor
May 15, 2012, 9:31pm Top

Logical as your suggestion may appear, I fear that I simply sha'n't do it.

For a start, it would threaten my sons education. Do you know how many sons I have?

3elenchus
Edited: May 15, 2012, 9:35pm Top

I've never given it much thought, though it's evident you have, and upon consideration Im willing to give it a go. Curious what counter posts will appear in this space, so Ive starred this thread.

Ive no Latin to speak of: is the latter bit THE END OF THE APOSTROPHE IS NEAR?

4Muscogulus
May 15, 2012, 9:50pm Top

> 2

You could rephrase for me: "It would threaten both my sons education." "It would threaten my three sons education."

> 3

If I've declined it properly, it's "the apostrophe sign must be destroyed."

5literarium
Edited: May 15, 2012, 11:48pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

6Crypto-Willobie
May 16, 2012, 12:21am Top

Thi's message ha's been deleted by it's author.

7anglemark
May 16, 2012, 4:04am Top

Celebrimbor, there is always ambiguity in language. We seem to cope regardless of that.

8prosfilaes
May 16, 2012, 10:22am Top

It would make a number of words that are pronounced differently spelled alike. I'm not sure what English orthography needs is more ambiguity. Some simplification might be nice, but not complete removal of the apostrophe.

9overthemoon
May 16, 2012, 2:50pm Top

Other Germanic languages dont need the apostrophe to mark possession, contractions, or plurals. The fact is that we dont need it either.

The Dutch language uses the apostrophe in various cases, for instance to show that a letter has been omitted, as in 's avonds, and in some plurals such as baby's, to keep the last vowel long.

10anglemark
May 16, 2012, 5:32pm Top

Swedish very seldom uses it, but also very seldom uses contractions.

11amysisson
May 16, 2012, 10:51pm Top

But what if it were only one son? It would be awkward to say "It would threaten my one sons education." Not to mention that it would be replacing one character with three characters to get the same meaning.

I think the only confusing thing about the apostrophe is "its" versus "it's" -- and somehow I still managed to master that years and years ago. :-)

12elenchus
May 16, 2012, 11:41pm Top

>10 anglemark: Swedish ... very seldom uses contractions.

Fascinating. Are contractions more or less common among modern languages? Which language families use them? Is it about the sounds in the language, or more a cultural norm?

I'd never thought about it, and I'm familiar only with German -- which I believe does use contractions quite a bit, i.e. Wie geht's?

13overthemoon
May 17, 2012, 3:57am Top

German uses apostrophes to replace missing bits of words as in Ku'damm. Since the spelling reform, both Wie geht's and Wie gehts are acceptable, as far as I know.

14MarthaJeanne
May 17, 2012, 4:10am Top

11> I thought so, too, but recently looked with horror on a translation I had just sent off, and realized that I had not only typed 'it's' when it should have been 'its', but both my husband and I had missed it when proofreading. I sent a correction, and hope that it got there in time to get the correction printed, and not the first draft.

Personally I would prefer more orthographic differentiation between words rather than less. I think it makes things easier to read. In spoken language there is usually a chance to ask questions to clarify misunderstandings. With a book, I need to have enough clues to understand what the author meant without asking.

15CliffordDorset
May 17, 2012, 7:20am Top

Another valuable aspect of using apostrophes is that it acts as a shibboleth, helping identify those writers who care about the language they're using, and therefore how reliable it might be to take all the other words at their face value. Making one apparent error is forgivable, making two brings on the question: 'Why am I reading this?'

Here I have (inadvertently) broadened the discussion to the abolition of the question mark!

16prosfilaes
May 17, 2012, 10:12am Top

#15: I don't think adding shibboleths to our language is a good thing. I don't think that it has any correlation to "writers who care about the language they're using"; in fact, pausing to figure out where apostrophes go distracts authors from the language to worry about orthography. Nor does the language tell me about whether I can "take all the other words at their face value"; however much we humans may not like it, beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty. Many people have interesting important ideas but don't write well (even in some cases having no problem with the English language but having problems with English orthography) and others produce vapid or completely wrong material in beautiful English.

The Dr. Fox effect comes into play here; if you're a sufficiently good speaker, you can speak garbage to professionals and be regarded as insightful. I think that is an effect to avoid, not to be proud of giving into.

17_Zoe_
May 17, 2012, 10:16am Top

The sons example was enough for me. If it disambiguates, even only occasionally, then it's worth keeping. I feel similarly about the Oxford comma.

18Muscogulus
Edited: Apr 11, 2013, 11:02am Top

>15 CliffordDorset:

This remark sent me on a Google Books search for authors who omit the apostrophe, most if not all of the time. I remember reading a few novels whose authors favored dont and wont, but I'm away from home right now and surrounded by nonfiction.

Not too surprisingly, the earliest examples I found of apostrophe omission come from Bernard Shaw. His play Misalliance includes e.g. the line "Thats what theyre like; theyve nasty minds.…" You can find the text at Project Gutenberg or in a 1917 edition at Google Books. Slightly earlier is this 1915 volume including The Doctor's Dilemma. I note that the possessive apostrope-s survives in the title of that play.

A number of other works that omitted apostrophes are too self-consciously outré for me to take seriously. (A graphic novel about zombies, for instance.) The most credible item in this category, and a new title to me, is John Rechy's 1963 novel City of Night, set in "the homosexual underground of the early sixties." It has a good reputation with some critics. (Only snippets of the text are available through Google.)

A surprising entry is Andy Rooney’s 2004 collection of TV sketches, Years of Minutes. He has this to say in the Foreword:

The one affectation I have forced on the publisher … are my apostrophe-free elisions.… I dont spell "don't" with an apostrophe. I spell it "dont." We all know the word and it seems foolish to put in an extraneous apostrophe. Punctuation marks are devices we use to make the meaning of sentences clear. There is nothing confusing about a word like "dont" printed without an apostrophe to indicate an omitted letter. That's not true for all words that usually have apostrophes. Its difficult to make a general rule because there are places where leaving out the apostrophe doesnt work.

Rooney gives "I'll/Ill" as an example, but "we're/were" and "we'll/well" can also cause problems, of course. He concludes with "a list of elisions in which I dont use an apostrophe":

arent, cant, couldnt, didnt, doesnt, dont, hadnt, hasnt, havent, Im, isnt, its, Ive, shouldnt, thats, theres, theyd, theyve, theyre, wasnt, werent, wont, wouldnt, youd, youll, youre, youve. That wont bother you, will it?

What do you think of his list?

19amysisson
May 17, 2012, 10:30am Top

Even "dont" doesn't work for me, because my mind wants to pronounce it "daunt."

20Muscogulus
Edited: May 17, 2012, 10:34am Top

>18 Muscogulus:

Ah, well, if its your wont to rhyme dont with daunt, then you wont care for this proposal.

21overthemoon
May 17, 2012, 11:29am Top

>18 Muscogulus: I don't like that list because cant is another word, dont looks very unfamiliar, werent looks as if it's two syllables, wont is also another word. They would all bother me without the apostrophes.

It occurred to me that the reason German does not require a possessive apostrophe is because plurals are not formed with -s so there is no risk of confusion.

22Muscogulus
May 17, 2012, 11:49am Top

Ah yes, consistency. That's why we always use the apostrophe-s to indicate possession, as in its. And hers. No, wait a minute....

23lilithcat
May 17, 2012, 12:26pm Top

> 18

"cant" and "wont" both have different meanings from "can't" and "won't". When I see "Im", I'm inclined to pronounce it with a short "i" rather than a long one. "Its" rather than "it's" has a different meaning": one is a possessive, the other isn't. If I saw "theyre", I wouldn't be sure if the writer meant "they are" or couldn't spell "their". Same with "youre": is that "you are" or a typo for "your"?

So lots of problems with that list!

24elenchus
Edited: May 17, 2012, 12:32pm Top

>23 lilithcat:

I see your points, and can't help thinking they're not inherent to the list, but follow on from your familiarity with our current practice of using apostrophes. If we didn't, would that list be any more confusing than the fact we indicate possessive with an apostrophe except for its or hers? Or any number of examples already mentioned?

I find this conversation fascinating, my comments not meant to join sides so much as it's a topic I've not thought about on my own and find it interesting to hear and consider what others are posting.

25overthemoon
May 17, 2012, 1:57pm Top

its, his and hers, no apostrophe. Consistent.

it's = it is.

Simple really.

26amysisson
May 17, 2012, 3:08pm Top

^Also theirs.

27Esta1923
May 17, 2012, 4:03pm Top

#25: yes! This is the one I most frequently cite... Alas, some users aren't happy with me (tho I meant a favor!)

28prosfilaes
May 17, 2012, 5:02pm Top

#17: The problem with the Oxford comma is, Wikipedia points out, that it can actually make it worse. "To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God" becomes the entirely clear "To my mother, Ayn Rand and God" once you lose the Oxford comma.

29amysisson
May 17, 2012, 5:09pm Top

What about "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God" versus "To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God"? You need the comma in that case. Basically, having the comma means I don't have to read and stumble, waiting to figure out if we're at the end of the list or if the two people/nouns are a set that goes together.

30Muscogulus
May 17, 2012, 5:35pm Top

>28 prosfilaes:, 29

What you're both demonstrating is that there's no substitute for proofing your writing with fresh eyes before turning it loose on the world.

Regarding the apostrophe, I'll venture that it's a symptom of a broader problem with English that discourages many English speakers from thinking of themselves as fluent writers. That is the preservation of historical spellings that carry false, or misleading, or at best useless information about words.

I'm not proposing a drastic spelling reform, as those never work. We're stuck with sentences like I thought I could plough through the rough stuff.

But why should we submit to the tyranny of the apostrophe as well? Apostrophe usage is neither logical nor consistent. It discourages beginning writers, who have enough to discourage them already. Why put up with it?

31prosfilaes
May 17, 2012, 5:53pm Top

#29: No. Read #28 again, and then read the Wikipedia article. The comma may solve the problem in some cases, but it causes the problem in some cases, and in some cases it just leaves the ambiguity.

#30: The usage of the letter "e" is neither logical nor consistent, but we don't propose removing all examples of it. We could remove a lot of the uses and leave the contractions where it functions as an orthographic letter; "don't", "he'll", etc. are just as consistent as any other spelling in English.

In any case, if you're so intrepid, lead the way. We're not French or German; the only way this change is going to go through is by the weight of the writers using it.

32_Zoe_
May 17, 2012, 6:04pm Top

>28 prosfilaes: Good point! I hadn't seen that one before.

So, rather than a consistent rule for the Oxford comma, use it as appropriate on a case-by-case basis?

33bookishglee
May 17, 2012, 8:32pm Top

ur kiddin rite? u dont evn stick 2 ur rule in #30 lol how do u show how u feel with no apostrophe ;'( thats what i think of ur idea

34rybie2
May 17, 2012, 9:16pm Top

one problem with abolition of the apostrophe is that it would make it impossible to tell cant from cant

35amysisson
May 17, 2012, 9:33pm Top

#31, yes, I understand the comma causes the problem in your example. But it still solves the problem in my example. That is, unless the writer's parents really ARE Ayn Rand and God. :-)

36MyopicBookworm
May 17, 2012, 9:50pm Top

Repetition of the preposition is more elegant anyway:

To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God.

37amysisson
May 17, 2012, 9:54pm Top

^I can agree with you on that. It definitely clears up ambiguity in an elegant way.

38Muscogulus
May 17, 2012, 10:32pm Top

It's true, Ive relapsed into apostrophe usage even in this thread. Old habits die hard.

Im not too concerned about "cant" and "wont" being confused with their synonyms, as context will make the intended meaning clear. "Wont" in particular is an archaism that makes few appearances these days.

Besides, how can "won't" be considered a contraction of "will not"? That would be "willn't" or "wi'n't." The apostrophe in wont doesnt even make sense.

39prosfilaes
May 18, 2012, 1:25pm Top

#38: Besides, how can "won't" be considered a contraction of "will not"?

Again, it's easier to not consider words spelled with an apostrophe contractions; consider them words spelled with apostrophes.

40Muscogulus
May 18, 2012, 1:42pm Top

> 39

In that case, what was the point of evolving from "ca'n't" and "wo'n't" to "can't" and "won't"? Maybe its time to take the next step.

41bookishglee
May 18, 2012, 2:58pm Top

One clearly needs fresh spellings for the newly apostroectomized words to distinguish them from their homographs. I would suggest:

can't -> carnt
I'll -> Ile
won't -> wownt
he'll -> heell
we'll - > weell
it's -> itz

As for the problem of possessives, a repurposing of parentheses would be wise. Giving dash, bracket and comma all dominion over parentheticals seems somewhat excessive, no?

This is James's house.

Would become:

This is (James house).

Thereby clarifying age-old possessive questions, not least how one might possessivise words ending in S.

42Muscogulus
May 18, 2012, 3:11pm Top

> 41

Hilarious! I offer only one amendment to your delicious satire.

can't -> caint

The benefits for poetry, not to say pop music, should be obvious, as "caint" rhymes with a heckuva lot more words. Like "haint."

43MarthaJeanne
Edited: May 18, 2012, 3:12pm Top

When German updated its spelling some time ago there were lots of issues of local use and lots of publishers that refused to use the new forms and a lot of chaos over what was and was not allowed. That seems to have mostly
calmed down by now. On the other hand, German basically effects three countries that all border on each other. And one of them is large enough to carry any such recommendations by itself.

Right now in English we already have two main sets of spelling rules and several variations on them. Any attempt to change the way words are written would have to pass muster at least with the publishers in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and multitudes of other countries that have English as a legal or major language. (And get adapted by Microsoft and other spellcheck purveyors. That might even be the most important one.) Much as I hate it, I suspect that by the time my grandsons are my age, 'nite' will be acceptable for 'night'. But I don't see the apostrophe disappearing in my time.

44Muscogulus
Edited: May 18, 2012, 4:31pm Top

>43 MarthaJeanne:

Prescriptive guidelines tend to follow common practice, not anticipate it.

One reason for my proposal is that I would like to act against the proliferation of apostrophe's in context's where they clearly dont belong. I believe that reducing the number of cases in which apostrophes are considered necessary would help reduce the frequency of apostrophe abuse by inexperienced, ignorant, or harassed writers.

I read somewhere, probably in the excellent book Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, that apostrophe abuse in English has had an effect on young Germans, all of whom study English in school, and many of whom now turn out phrases like des Vater's (instead of Vaters) Unterhose.

To quote a famous lawman, "We need to nip this thing in the bud!"

45Rozax
Jun 20, 2012, 1:16am Top

I'm very much against the abolition of the apostrophe.

41: I write it as James' house.

Just jumping in with my meager two cents.

46mene
Jun 20, 2012, 1:36pm Top

44: That thing with the apostrophs is also happening in Dutch - many young people who study English in school start writing apostrophs in 'ownership' forms where none is needed, for example: "Sanne's book" would be "Sannes boek" in Dutch officially, but people start writing "Sanne's boek".

47Muscogulus
Edited: Jul 28, 2012, 5:22pm Top

I suppose English is introducing its possessive-apostrophe nonsense to other languages wherever English is widely studied. Sometimes we export our confusion about possessives and plurals as well. I've noticed one example in Spanish. A Mexican restaurant in our city, founded by two guys named Juan, rejoices in the name Los Juane's. Of course the apostrophe is as wrong in the Spanish as it would be to mark most English plurals.

48Paul_Peter_Mclean
Jul 26, 2012, 9:14pm Top

Without apostrophes, you need to know the context. And how do you differentiate between "the teacher's books" and "the teachers' books"? And if we're going to lose the apostrophe because some people can't understand how, or can't be bothered to use it properly, shouldn't we take the whole thing to its natural conclusion and have a complete overhaul of English language to make it easier to read and write? Or better still, let everyone write in their own way? No, punctuation, grammar, correct spelling et cetera serve a purpose, and the fact that some people are too lazy and/or stupid to learn how to write properly is no reason for all of us to sink to their level.

49ed.pendragon
Jul 27, 2012, 5:25am Top

>48 Paul_Peter_Mclean:
The future is already here.

50prosfilaes
Edited: Jul 27, 2012, 9:53am Top

#48: And how do you differentiate between "the teacher's books" and "the teachers' books"?

The same way you would when you speak them.

The relationship between written Chinese and spoken Chinese can be complex. But in English, like most languages, the written language is pretty isomorphic to the spoken language. Arguments that small features where the written form conveys information unavailable in the spoken form are critically important seem unconvincing.

the fact that some people are too lazy and/or stupid to learn how to write properly is no reason for all of us to sink to their level.

Writing is a tool that people should feel comfortable using to communicate; making it a tool of exclusion is highly undesirable. With any tool, being easy to use, easy to get right, and with no higher intelligence requirements to use then necessary is a good thing.

In any case, since when has "and/or" been a part of writing properly?

51prosfilaes
Edited: Jul 27, 2012, 9:53am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

52Petroglyph
Jul 27, 2012, 11:36am Top

>48 Paul_Peter_Mclean:: Without apostrophes, you need to know the context. And how do you differentiate between "the teacher's books" and "the teachers' books"?

But context is inescapable -- it involves world knowledge, shared assumptions, speaker/hearer having gone through the same discourse together, and a great deal more. How often does that particular construction (the X's Y) come up without context and shared conversational history supplying a great deal of non-overt information? My bet would be: almost never. If you come across a misplaced apostrophe and you're able to correct it, then you've proven that you are able to successfully decode the intended message regardless of misspellings as small as the position of an apostrophy. Any confusion caused by a misplaced apostropeh is, at best, superficial. Just like misspelling "apostrophe" like I just did does not cause any real confusion.

Languages are quite robust, and people are amazing communicators. The gap between "what is said" and "what is conveyed" is almost always fairly large, and yet misunderstandings of the type "wait, one teacher or more?" are on the whole pretty rare. What I'm trying to say is that languages tolerate quite a bit of vagueness and ambiguity (check any academic work on polysemy for a wealth of examples -- the ambiguity is built right into the bones of the language). For instance, Standard English manages just fine conflating 2nd person singular you with 2nd person plural you -- and you'd expect much more confustion as a result (much more and more often than in cases such as the X's Y). And yet people speaking some variety of Standard English manage just fine. (NB. Other varieties are bridging that gap by grammaticalizing youse, you guys, y'all etc).

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for shared spelling standards (reading and writing need to be comfortable, non-taxing experiences), but I don't see the potential loss of the apostrophe in possessive constructions as a cause for alarm, since, to my mind, so very little is riding on it. Just the confusion between "raze" and "raise" is significant in only a vanishingly small number of uses. I don't even think that people misusing apostrophes (or confusing raze/raise) is a sign of them disappearing, or cause for "let[ting] everyone write in their own way", as you put it.

53erilarlo
Jul 28, 2012, 4:40pm Top

Abolishing the apostrophe strikes me as a totally unnecessary surrender to the lazy when English spelling is so totally chaotic.

54pinkozcat
Jul 29, 2012, 2:28am Top

#53

I agree. I like apostrophes - it enables me to read faster as I don't have to keep stopping to work out what I am reading. (I proof read a six volume doctoral thesis and commas became a rather contentious issue).

Anyway - let's do battle against contractions in written English. As I understand it, school kids are submitting essays written in text language and when that happens things are really going to the bad.

55MyopicBookworm
Aug 2, 2012, 7:29am Top

Hmm. I like hyphens as well as apostrophes: I had to slow down when I reached "proof-read a six-volume doctoral thesis" without hyphens.

56buckjohnson
Aug 2, 2012, 9:56am Top

As Lynne Truss has noted, there's a growing tendency to use the erroneous -'s to form plurals on store signs. As a doubly egregious example of that, I know an otherwise wonderful Italian deli with signs reading "Try our fresh cannoli's" and "Grilled panini's," which is especially perverse because "cannoli" and "panini" are already plural.

57ed.pendragon
Edited: Aug 3, 2012, 10:03am Top

How about that ubiquitous list of things to do and things not to do? What should that be? Initial googling comes up with
1. Dos and donts (no apostrophes)
2. DOs and DON'Ts (an attempt to get round plurals by capitalisation, and also avoid IT-specific DOS)
3. Do's and Don'ts (both incorrect and correct usage)
4. Dos and Don'ts (correct usage?)
5. Do's and Don't's (having your cake and eating it)
6. Do's and Dont's (so, so wrong)

Personally I incline towards No 4. Not yet found any pluralisation of 'do' to become 'does', but that has its own problems, my deer.

58buckjohnson
Aug 3, 2012, 6:40pm Top

Re #57: I agree; I'd endorse the fourth one as well. Using -'s to pluralize seldom-pluralized words is reasonable in the rare cases when the meaning would otherwise be ambiguous because a more familiar word would be generated without the apostrophe ("How many i's and a's are in your name, Mr. Sillanpaa?"), but there's really no ambiguity for "dos" unless the reader thinks the text is suddenly, for one word, lapsing into Spanish. If we were pluralizing "do" as a short form of "hairdo," I'd also write "dos" without the apostrophe. I can't see any logical grounds for dropping the apostrophe in "don't" regardless of whether it's singular or plural, though you're right that it's often encountered that way.

I don't think I've ever seen "do" pluralized to "does" either, yet oddly I have--more often than not, if memory serves--seen "no" pluralized as "noes." A Google tally shows that "yeses and noes" is almost three times as common as "yeses and nos," not that that means the former is better, of course. Maybe "nos" seems ambiguous because it could, albeit lacking the period, be shorthand for "numbers," as in "nos. 1 and 3."

59jjwilson61
Aug 3, 2012, 11:53pm Top

I think noes is the usual plural for no because it looks like it should be pronounced n-ah-s instead of like nose. Probably the same would go for dos vs. does.

60ed.pendragon
Aug 4, 2012, 8:42am Top

>59 jjwilson61:
Ah, the old looks=pronunciation approach. As many pitfalls as not.

61Muscogulus
Edited: Oct 10, 2013, 11:23pm Top

James Harneck has just posted a manifesto for abolishing the apostrophe here. It's worth reading. He acknowledges that this is a pipe dream, but insists that abolishing the spostrophe is not tantamount to abolishing all rules. On the contrary, it would make it easier to follow the rules.

Group: I Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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