It seems that the humble apostrophe offends and confuses people. So much in fact, that the Mid Devon town council in Tiverton, England has proposed to do away with them in street signs.
When I heard about this on CBC Radio’s The Current, my curiosity was piqued. But when journalist Anna Maria Tremonti said there are websites dedicated to both doing away with, and saving the apostrophe, I laughed. Surely this was some sort of practical joke; a spoof news story like those produced by The Onion.
The apostrophe is in very real peril apparently.
Language is a living thing, and as such it evolves. I’m cool with that. I don’t mind texting language in its proper place. Things like “c u l8r” exist to fend off carpal tunnel in our thumbs. There was a time when splitting an infinitive was tantamount to hearsay. Now, thanks to Gene Roddenberry, we’ve learned to boldly go about our business without giving it a second thought.
The apostrophe too exists for a reason. Its job is to clarify messages and enable more effective communication. There’s a very real difference between the words hell and he’ll or were and we’re, for example.
Of course, the real issue here is not the apostrophe at all. It’s literacy.
The modern English-speaking world hasn’t learned how to use apostrophes. We haven’t learned other punctuation, grammar and spelling rules either. Rather than address this issue, we’ve chosen to ignore it. Town councils move to abolish apostrophes in signs. Schools remove grammar from lesson plans. As such, our public institutions are making decisions that effectively promote, if not cause, illiteracy. The socio-economic ramifications of that are heartbreaking.
I don’t lose sleep over an honest grammatical mistake. We all make them. But plummeting literacy rates? That does keep me up at night.
So please, save the apostrophe.