Are we heading for a post-apostrophe society?

Time | Slate | The New Republic

The apostrophe — the punctuation mark, not the parenthetical form of speech directed at one person — will never die as long as copy editors and auto-correct programs value it, Katy Steinmetz argues. (Happy National Punctuation Day, Katy!) Losing the punctuation mark forever would require a “revolution in thought and relaxation among gatekeepers of the written word,” she writes.

Copyeditors are still changing donut to doughnut, after all. “Language is constantly changing, but predicting what will happen next is notoriously challenging,” [Oxford University's U.S. dictionary honcho Katherine] Martin says. “It is difficult to believe that copyeditors are going to stop distinguishing between its and it’s in the near future.”

But at this point in publishing history, throwing one’s lot in with gatekeepers seems as sound as larding your pension with media-company stocks. The American Society of News Editors’ annual surveys of copy editor jobs show there are about half as many copy-editing positions at newspapers than there were a decade ago (though that category has also included layout editors and online producers at times in the survey).

And auto-correct? I’d like to think I’d go to the trouble of inserting apostrophes while texting if it stopped popping them in for me, but I kind of doubt it.

Some are more ready for an apostrophpocalypse. Matthew J.X. Malady quoted pro- and anti-apostrophe forces in a Slate piece last May, but his piece tilts toward abolition. Those who argue that missing apostrophes will sow confusion ignore that people contextualize when they read, MIT professor Ted Gibson told Malady. “[W]hen you mean shell, it’s pretty clear that you don’t mean she’ll,” Gibson said. “Just the preceding word and the following word will completely disambiguate she’ll from shell. There’s just no chance that’s going to be a problem.”

“If apostrophes are redundant and anachronistic, then so are math and science,” National Punctuation Day founder Jeff Rubin wrote in an email to Poynter. “I mean, really, is there any computation in math that can’t be done on a calculator, or any science you can’t find on Google?” If ease of use is how we judge apostrophes’ usage, “Let’s eliminate all punctuation,” Rubin writes.

I mean, the kids have trouble learning it, their parents don’t know how to use it, it seems to annoy just about everyone, so why bother with it? Let’s make this easy and dumb down our language, just as we do with most everything else in our society.

Earlier this year, Paul Lukas identified another existential threat to apostrophes: smart quotes, which left untended, render apostrophes incorrectly in constructions like “Romney ‘12″ (should be “Romney ’12) or “Bring ‘em on” rather than “Bring ’em on.”

Lukas offers a couple solutions: replace curly apostrophes with straight ones, or eliminate apostrophes altogether. Or just give up: “Thanks to a combination of inertia and indifference, the backwards apostrophe may become the new de facto standard,” Lukas writes.

I’m not totally sure I buy the anti-apostrophe slant of Malady’s piece, though: It’s a bit rich coming from a site that insisted on “wider em- and en-dashes” during its redesign. Is there a less useful piece of typography, especially online, than the en-dash? Lets start there before we take peoples apostrophes away.

Bonus punctuation content: Poynter held a potluck celebrating National Punctuation Day. Here are some photos, by Naughton Fellow Anna Li:

Salsa and guacamole in punctuation-shaped dishes.
An apostrophe? A comma? Looks delish either way.

Even more punctuation content: This summer, I collected some evidence that Ireland and the U.K. are becoming post-inverted-comma societies.

A mall in Waterford, Ireland.
A van in Oban, Scotland.

Related: Urban Dictionary, Wordnik track evolution of language as words change, emerge | Misspellings show language’s evolution, but does that mean they’re ok for journalists to use?

Related training: News University Punctuation Day: Tools, not rules, for writing and reading

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  • Work Avoidance Log

    “If ease of use is how we judge apostrophes’ usage, ‘Let’s eliminate all punctuation,’ [National Punctuation Day founder Jeff] Rubin writes.”

    The Log has news for Jeff Rubin: the elimination of all punctuation is well underway. Visit the comment threads on any random handful of websites and you’ll see solid blocks of text without a comma, period, dash or semicolon in sight–and in all lower case (the preferred character set of the interwebz).

    The Log’s theory is that a generation (the millennials) that has adopted SMS (texting) as its default communications method learned early that it’s all about character–or characters. When you pay per message, you skip any character you don’t need. Twitter’s SMS-inspired 140 character limit was another reason to kick punctuation to the curb. The millennials have learned how to read a block of text without periods and commas (and frankly, it’s not difficult–though lack of punctuation offends The Log’s writerly–and middle-aged–sensibilities).

    As for the haples’s apos’trophe, The Log res’pectfully suggest’s that if Englis’h speaker’s on three continent’s ever stop using an apostrophe in the plural form’s of word’s, then it’ll be time to fret over First World Problems (sorry: Problem’s) like whether an apostrophe is backwards–as if there could be such a thing!

    Back to work:

  • John_Galt_2011

    A tendency toward laziness, stupidity, and ignorance is simply not a good reason to acquiesce. Why not take away the U.S. standard of driving on the right side of the road? Wouldn’t that accomplish the same objective, i.e. allowing the dumber people to be closer to the middle (no pun intended) and therefore closer to social acceptance? Why not eliminate periods, question marks, commas, and capitalization? im going to help my uncle jack off his horse How’s that? Why not stop teaching our children to stay out of the street or to look both ways before crossing the street? Inner city kids (and adults) already live this way. We certainly can’t expect children to need to know that their horrible, painful death is imminent when they’re just trying to lackadaisically lollygag across some street. But by golly, we certainly don’t want to set expectations too high.

    the least common denominator thats the american way everyone will be better off if we just figure out how the dumbest people live then require everyone to live at their level of stupidity and laziness so they wont have to learn how to live expecting everyone to be responsible members of society is racist and discriminates against dumb people poor people and people who just dont feel like paying attention to the free schooling provided to them by taxpayers what a wonderful society it would be if everyone was equal not just equal opportunity or inalienable right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness actual equality and actual happiness its just a shame that the only way to accomplish such a ridiculous thing is to force all the average people and all the smart people to not be average or smart any more rather theyll need to adapt to having no ability to read write speak or understand thats what will make america great everyone needs to just get off their high horse and be dumb everyone just needs to chill and be lazy dont worry about these stupid bourgeois oh i cant use that word all the dumb people wont know what i mean reach people probably the 1% forcing their elite intellectual grammar requirements on us

  • JenInChicago

    I am forever correcting my auto-correct. I agree with Kyle in regards to his laziness and stupidity comment. Just because someone can’t remember how to use apostrophes doesn’t mean we all have to dumb our lives down for them.

  • Kyle Schroeck

    I think people are avoiding apostrophes because of laziness and stupidity. Don’t lump me in with the parents who are unable to use one correctly. If Ebonics is easy, why don’t we all speak that way? Because you’d sound like a blithering idiot, so why write like one?