The mark of scorn

January 17, 2012

You will excuse me for not getting exercised over the decision by Waterstone’s the British bookseller, to drop the apostrophe from its name.* The Apostrophe Protection Society appears to have its knickers in a twist, as it has in the past over Harrods. Not me.

The society has its work cut out for it. The semicolon has its defenders, and needs them, because that punctuation mark appears to inspire dislike or unease. The lowly comma—It’s a pause mark! It’s a syntax mark! It’s both!—falls into the hands of undergraduates who think they can make texts error-free with promiscuous comma insertion. But the apostrophe has more trouble and causes more trouble than any other feature of punctuation.

Its dual functions, indicating possession and elision, get entangled. You can make letters plural—all A’s—and numbers (in some stylebooks)—1980’s—but if you make nouns plural you get the scorned greengrocer’s apostrophe—melon’s. If you make proper nouns plural—the Smith’s—you demonstrate past inattention in English class.

It often drops out of place names—the Fell’s Point/Fells Point thing in Baltimore gives rise to the occasional kerfuffle—and appears inconsistently in maps and signage.

Of all the errors, the most common is the it’s/its blunder—It’s just a spelling mistake! It’s an illiteracy! It’s more than the one and less than the other—catches everyone who writes, because it takes very little for the wrong neuron to fire.

The reason, David Crystal explains in a link provided by Stan Carey,** is that the apostrophe is relatively new to English, its uses were only codified in the nineteenth century, and people have had trouble applying it from the start to the present.

It is a mess and a muddle, and eliminating all the inconsistencies is a doomed venture.

Therefore, little ones, here’s some advice from Mr. John.

Don’t obsess about Waterstones and Harrods and other commercial ventures that may or may not use the apostrophe. Branding is its own little world. Spare yourself stress by not fretting over signage and menus and the other public places where the apostrophe has been omitted or improperly inserted. It’s not your business, and you couldn’t fix it all anyhow.

Put your head down and make sure you know what you’re doing in your own writing. Watch out for the it’s/its error, because you know you’re going to make it sooner or later. Check whatever style guide you use to find out when you want to make plurals with the apostrophe and stick to it. Other people’s results may vary. That’s all right. You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden.

*Stan Carey has a sensible post about this matter at Sentence First, with links. If you are not regularly reading Mr. Carey’s thoughtful posts on language, you are missing the good stuff.

**Didn’t I already tell you to go to Stan Carey’s blog?

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