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?