HEATHER BINGLEY asks: ‘Apostrophes: necessary or nuisance?’

In the critically acclaimed ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, Lynne Truss, a self-proclaimed ‘Language stickler’ (2009:1), asks ‘isn’t it time to recognize that the apostrophe needs our help?’(p.37). After being used simply to mark dropped letters in the 17th century to being used to mark a possessive, indicate plural, and to indicate non-standard English (p.37-44) (to name only a few of eight jobs the poor apostrophe now has) we have to ask ourselves if we really need the apostrophe? Does the apostrophe need to perform all of these duties, and do people care if it is used incorrectly?

In many cases the answer appears to be ‘no’. However there is an obvious attempt to grasp an understanding in terms of applying the apostrophe. Victoria Moore, a journalist for ‘The Mail Online’ states in her article ‘Apostrophe Catastrophe’ that ‘the poor apostrophe is the subject of more abuse than any other dot, dash or squiggle’. Yet when she points out the blatant errors in signs and posters, people have a seemingly defensive attitude towards their use of grammar, with the bar manager of a ‘swanky Charlotte Street Hotel in London’ justifying his use of the apostrophe in ‘Martini’s’ as correct because he ‘checked it on google’. Though a loose justification it does show an attempt at understanding the rules of usage, something which is a recurring theme throughout the article. When Moore shows Anam Islam, a ‘young graphic designer’ his mistake in the sentence ‘threatening to copy plan’s’, plastered on the window of Copywell, a printing and copying centre, he says he is surprised by the mistake as he ‘watched a documentary on apostrophes the other week and thought [he] always got them right’. People do want to use the apostrophe correctly but don’t seem to understand how. Is this their fault?

David Crystal says ‘no’. In ‘The Fight For English’ he states that there was a ‘forty-year wilderness which lasted roughly from 1960-2000’, in which ‘[T]eachers spent a lot of time explaining about rules, and not just imposing them. And examiners would only give marks if those explanations were understood.’(2006:155). This has led to a generation of people unable to accurately use the apostrophe; people like Anam Islam who try to teach themselves the rules and fail. Crystal states that ‘‘Do it yourself’ linguistics’ will fail as it is too late. He suggests that ‘Linguistic education needs to take place while we are young…. when we can find the time, resources, and help’ meaning that self-help books like Truss’s are somewhat useless, and although they help with a general understanding they are not a panacea. If they were, the problem would have been abolished with the first self-help grammar book.

With this in mind can we say that the apostrophe is a dying mark? Can we say that people don’t care?

HEATHER BINGLEY,  English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)


Crystal, D. (2006) The Fight for English: How language pundits are, shot and left. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, V. (2008) Apostrophe catastrophe! The rouge apostrophe is spreading like measles. It’s time to fight back… [online]. 18th November [Accessed 15 October 2012],  available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1086832/Apostrophe-catastrophe-The-rogue-apostrophe-spreading-like-measles-Its-time-fight-.html#ixzz1sUrKecKO

Truss, L. (2009) Eats shoots and Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation . 4th edition. London: HarperCollins.


One thought on “HEATHER BINGLEY asks: ‘Apostrophes: necessary or nuisance?’

  1. I find Crystal’s arguement baffling. On one hand he suggests that we teach children linguistics at an early age…..but then when adults use poor grammar it is OK as long as it is coherant. I think he needs to make up his mind which side of the ‘grammar police’ fence he is sitting on!

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