Lets abolish apostrophes! 
Posted: 06 April 2007 12:22 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Seriously: are they really necessary, and are they on the way out in any case?

The purpose of punctuation is to assist the reader in the absence of the nuances of intonation that would make the meaning clear in the spoken language. I dont think apostrophes do this; were you held up, even for the slightest, by the absence of the one in ‘don’t’, other than to register that I’d made an uncharacteristic mistake?

In the case of the possessive apostrophe, a distinction is being made that couldn’t be done in speech, but is actually rarely necessary. If I say to you, ‘Have you got a few minutes to help me shift my brothers books from upstairs?’ you don’t know whether I mean ‘brother’s’ or ‘brothers’’, but your answer is more likely to be determined by whether you can spare the time than by the number of my siblings.

Those of us who have to proofread texts spend an inordinate amount of time shifting apostrophes, which isn’t very edifying. It gives you the feeling that you’re the only one amongst a group of reasonably educated people who can follow a small set of not very complicated rules, and makes you wonder if you were put on this earth to fiddle with people’s punctuation. And then there are the logically inexplicable idiosyncrasies of proper names: is there the slightest difference between the status of a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and that of one who belongs to the Communication Workers Union? How much time do people waste checking these things, to say nothing of the efforts of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and his fellow green-inkers when someone gets it wrong?

The only instances where I can see the apostrophe as being necessary to prevent wrong-footing is in the words ‘she’ll’ and ‘we’re’, though there may be other examples. One might argue for ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, but in practice ‘cant’ and ‘wont’ are relatively uncommon and unlikely to cause confusion.

And I suspect the trend has started. I’ve been in department stores that had signs for mens or womens clothes, and my library offers mens and womens toilets. Of course, in those cases there’s no possible ambiguity, but even when the possessive is identical with the plural, there rarely is. (Yes, of course one can construct a few amusing examples, but that doesn’t alter the principle of the thing. )

Abolishing apostrophes would have the added benefit of annoying people like Lynn Truss, who is intensely irritating. As a general rule, I tend to support tradition against what I see as change that brings no benefit, but even in my most reactionary mode I can’t think of anything to say in defence of apostrophes apart from that their absence would look strange at first to those who were used to them. Can anyone do better?

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Posted: 06 April 2007 01:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’ll (whoops--there’s another possibility for confusion if apostrophes are eliminated) have to admit that mis-used apostrophes affect me rather like fingernails scraped down a blackboard, in spite of a generally liberal attitude toward language.  Possibly it’s simply because this is an area where I absorbed the rules early and still get a vague feeling of superiority when I see the rules abused.  Wonder why I didn’t use an apostrophe in my login?

But if we are taking nominations for punctuation to eliminate, how about the semicolon?  In almost every case, one could simply use two sentences instead of one with no change in a reader’s perception of the meaning.

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Posted: 06 April 2007 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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There’s a major difference in tone between clauses connected with a semicolon and separate sentences, so there’s a point in retaining it. One doesn’t necessarily always want to sound like Ernest Hemingway.

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Posted: 07 April 2007 12:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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How many people actually know how to use a semi-colon?  I don’t; if I use one, I’m merely guessing, because, despite an expensive education that taught me English really quite well, no-one ever told me how to use this form of punctuation.  It’s always puzzled me that the semi-colon should be lower-case and the colon upper-case on a qwerty keyboard, when the semi-colon is more rarely used.  Is its use perhaps slowly dying out?

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Posted: 07 April 2007 12:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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"And then there are the logically inexplicable idiosyncrasies of proper names” I would agree with kurwamac that apostrophes (indeed all punctuation, with the exception of the delightfully named Westward Ho!) should be abolished in place names.  Apart from the pointlessness of worrying whether “Bishop’s Lydeard” is wrong or “Bishops Stortford” is right, there is no higher authority one can appeal to.  If the inhabitants of Lydeard like their apostrophe and the inhabitants of Stortford prefer its absence (or vice versa), who’s to say that they are wrong?

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Posted: 07 April 2007 06:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I believe the consensus among those who study punctuation is that the apostrophe is indeed on its way out. It is a failed element of punctuation, entering the language a few hundred years ago and will probably be gone in another couple hundred.

I like the semicolon though; it’s useful in connecting to independent clauses that are contextually related. It’s also useful in separating phrases that make up the elements of a list--cases where a comma would be confusing.

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Posted: 07 April 2007 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I remembered the “elements of a list” usage for semi-colons about 15 minutes after posting my previous note.  That is, indeed, genuinely useful. 

Relative to apostrophes and proper names--the Lands’ End mail order company published a notice in its catalog some time ago thanking all those who pointed out the misplaced punctuation, but stating it had become so entrenched in the corporation that the management had decided to let it stand.

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Posted: 07 April 2007 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Without the apostrophe, greengrocer’s won’t be able to pluralize word’s…

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Posted: 08 April 2007 06:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I really do make the effort not to be a Word Nazi, but one thing that makes me crazy is the recent trend here in North America (yes, including Canada, where we should know better) to apostrophize (?) the family surname on the sign in front of the house or cottage.  One can take a walk down any road (particularly in ‘cottage country’—summer homes) and see signs like ‘The Smith’s’, or ‘The Lewis’s’ or ‘The Goldberg’s’.  I’m always tempted to knock on the door and ask for The Goldberg, and let him or her know that I love the sign.  Sorry, but it’s the misapplication of the thing that rankles me.  I do get tired of marking students’ (sic) papers replete with it’s and its in the wrong places.  Simple, but horribly irksome.

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Posted: 08 April 2007 08:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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students’ (sic) papers

It must be late; I don’t get the sicness.  Do you mean that you have one particularly irksome student?

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Posted: 08 April 2007 11:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Eliminate the semi-colon? Wash your mouth out! We need more semi-colons, not fewer. Had it occurred to you that the reason that the “comma splice” is one of the commonest grammatical errors these days is that people aren’t taught to use the semi-colon? They realise instinctively that a full stop will make too complete a break in the sense and rhythm of their words, so instead they put in a comma.

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Posted: 09 April 2007 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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shmegege - 08 April 2007 06:34 PM

I really do make the effort not to be a Word Nazi, but one thing that makes me crazy is the recent trend here in North America (yes, including Canada, where we should know better) to apostrophize (?) the family surname on the sign in front of the house or cottage.  One can take a walk down any road (particularly in ‘cottage country’—summer homes) and see signs like ‘The Smith’s’, or ‘The Lewis’s’ or ‘The Goldberg’s’.  I’m always tempted to knock on the door and ask for The Goldberg, and let him or her know that I love the sign.  Sorry, but it’s the misapplication of the thing that rankles me.  I do get tired of marking students’ (sic) papers replete with it’s and its in the wrong places.  Simple, but horribly irksome.

I thinkyou are simply interepreting the sign differently than was the intent.  You seem to be taking the sign to answer the question “Who lives here?” “The Smith’s” is clearly puncuation wrong, But it seems to me more likely that the intend was ellipsis:  “The Smith’s [house]”.

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Posted: 09 April 2007 05:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I thinkyou are simply interepreting the sign differently than was the intent.  You seem to be taking the sign to answer the question “Who lives here?” “The Smith’s” is clearly puncuation wrong, But it seems to me more likely that the intend was ellipsis:  “The Smith’s [house]”.

Not to split hairs, but wouldn’t that then be “The Smiths’”, with the apostrophe following the s?  That was my point about the house belonging to “The Smith”.

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Posted: 09 April 2007 05:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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It must be late; I don’t get the sicness.  Do you mean that you have one particularly irksome student?

Sorry, just making a silly point, referring to my own use of the apostrophe in “students’”.

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