Are we heading for a post-apostrophe society?

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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

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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