It's just an apostrophe, people

March 22, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

You may want to grab a paper bag to breathe into in case this post provokes hyperventilation.

Apostrophes are not all that important.

This insight came to me as I was reading an important distinction that Geoffrey Pullum makes at Lingua Franca: "The apostrophe is not a punctuation mark. It doesn’t punctuate. Punctuation marks are placed between units (sentences, clauses, phrases, words, morphemes) to signal structure, boundaries, or pauses. The apostrophe appears within words. It’s a 27th letter of the alphabet. This issue concerns spelling."

Now spelling is important. Neatness counts, and misspellings look sloppy. But neatness is not everything. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but godliness is likely more important. 

The occasion of Professor Pullum's column was a dust-up in Britain over the decision of a district council to eliminate apostrophes in street signs, and you would think from the outcry that it was a blow on the order of the Empire's loss of India. But it's just spelling. 

And it is spelling of place names, and in all the vast and unruly thicket that is English orthography, place names particularly resist regularization. Some places determinedly keep the apostrophe, such as St. James's Palace, which even the Associated Press Stylebook honors. And some shun it or drop it, like Harrods and Waterstones. The Baltimore Sun calls the harbor neighborhood Fells Point, and the society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point can go roll a hoop. 

Despite universal recognition that English spelling is hopelessly inconsistent, there are people who get exercised over things like the grocer's apostrophe and it's/its. You may recall the two lads who traversed the United States, merrily crossing out inappropriate apostrophes and adding appropriate ones. There is the Apostrophe Abuse website, with scores of citations dating back to 2005. 

But it's still just spelling. And carrying on about a minor lapse in spelling seems a feeble effort to grasp at a sense of superiority. You want "Always used the apostrophe correctly" as your epitaph?

It's just spelling. Spelling does count. Take some time to get it right. But, for Fowler's sake, keep calm and carry on. 

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