FEUDS SEPTEMBER 30, 2013
In the debate over whether the apostrophe should be eliminated, there may appear to be connection with real life. However, there isn’t—it can only be classified as a kind of journalistic kabuki. Not that there isn’t sense to it: More than a few understand that apostrophes serve no function and could be eliminated from writing with no ill effect. The Kill the Apostrophe website gets it just right: “If you’re the kind of person who does know and care about the ‘correct’ usage of apostrophes, think how much time you waste fretting over examples of ‘misuse’ when the very fact that you spotted the error means that you knew what they were trying to say in the first place.” Some even think that the anti-apostrophe movement is making inroads, given the general absence from texts. But the truth is that however careless people may be to the apostrophe when they text, in formal writing, the little bugger is—unfortunately—with us to stay.
The impression of demise comes from an age-old fear: that the kind of things that develop in casual speech—or today, e-mails or signs for “Pikes Peak” instead of “Pike’s Peak”—are about to infuse The New York Times. However, texting is essentially speaking with the fingers, not prose, and prose is much less permeable to casual speech than we tend to suppose. It’s more obvious in many other countries: An Arabic speaker’s casual language is as different from the standard language as Italian is from Latin, and no one in Finland actually speaks the standard language casually. In English a similar phenomenon is apparent in spelling conventions: Ours is a language in which through, tough, bough, and cough are all pronounced differently and no one bats an eye. Given that we accept this, the chance is decidedly slim that we are going to give up the difference between it’s and its.
Ah, but if only we could! The apostrophe is a magnificently arbitrary little frill, antique, fussy, and almost begging to be used incorrectly, like a fish fork. They remind me of sartorial advice I was urgently given when I moved to New York: Never wear pants with small vertical pleats around the hips, because it imparts a note of “old.” That makes no logical sense at all, and aesthetically I happened to like those pleats. However, I internalized the random fashion rule because one must, such that even today I wouldn’t be caught dead in pleated pants.
Our adherence to the rules of the apostrophe is no different than the business about pants. We are told we need apostrophes for clarity, but the supposed pitfalls of failing to use them are the kind of thing one must work to conceive rather than actual threats. Coming up with such situations has almost become a game. “Residents refuse to be placed in bins,” is one example John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society gave to Slate writer Matthew J.X. Malady. But to be human is to use and interpret language in context, not as disembodied sentences on a page. The notion of people being put in the trash lends a puckish enjoyment—but on a sign in an apartment building, there would be no confusion.
The only reason the apostrophe will always be with us, then, is not clarity but the mere fact that writing without it looks funny to us. Read is spelled the same way to indicate the present and the past. Why don’t we see protests and angry websites about that? For the simple reason that spelling it “red” (for the past tense) would, well, look funny. There is no more or less than that to say about why we stick with the apostrophe. The sheer arbitrariness of what we perceive as “correct” is obvious from how silly older—and equally arbitrary—uses of them look to us now: past-tense verbs like rebuk’d or after words ending in vowels, like comma’s. To Jonathan Swift, our current neglect of such archaisms would look faintly barbaric. Kill the Apostrophe—the “campaign” against the extraneous punctuation—illustrates the futility of the whole debate in that they do not use apostrophes in their text, and the result, in all of its sensibleness, will convince no one. The actual prose reads “If youre the kind of person …” Few will claim not to flinch a little at that “youre,” despite that there is no actual word “youre” to interfere with the clarity so many claim to be the point of apostrophes.
I wouldn’t go as far as Lynne Truss, who famously put it in her bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves that “If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best’, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” Yet I admit to cringing a bit when an educated adult confuses its and it’s or your and you’re in e-mails. Steeped in the linguistic conventions of my society, no matter how arbitrary, I register sentences like “It depends on how your feeling” as wrong notes in a song—and yes, as suggesting a lack of what, in a distant day, was called breeding.
Yet I wish I didn’t. Just as in the nineteenth century, when saying “have a look” instead of “look” was received in elite circles with the same kind of pearls-clutching, today’s aggrievement over “missing” apostrophes is a snobbery about something of illusory significance. Indeed, snobbery: In general, the recreational condemnation of colloquial grammar is America’s last condoned brand of classism.
There’d be less of it if the apostrophe were allowed to go the way of the spinet and the lorgnette. However, while pianos and contact lenses do their jobs better than those objects, there are few better ways to feel good about ourselves now and then than a functionless punctuation mark whose baroque conventions of application regularly stymie all but the most stringently attentive writers. Hence, we can be quite sure the apostrophe will be with us forever.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The New Republic.