Henry Hitchings suggests that my crusade to make students understand the correct use of the apostrophe may put me on the wrong side of history. He says the apostrophe vexed printers and writers who were confused about its application almost from the time of its invention in the sixteenth century, through its proliferation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture:
[C]ontrary to what defenders of the apostrophe imagine, its status has long been moot.Before the seventeenth century the apostrophe was rare. The Parisian printer Geoffroy Tory promoted it in the 1520s, and it first appeared in an English text in 1559.
Initially the apostrophe was used to signify the omission of a sound. Gradually it came to signify possession. This possessive use was at first confined to the singular. However, writers were inconsistent in their placing of the punctuation mark, and in the eighteenth century, as print culture burgeoned, everything went haywire. Although it seemed natural to use an apostrophe in the possessive plural, authorities, such as the grammarian Robert Lowth, argued against this. In a volume entitled “Grammatical Institutes” (1760), John Ash went so far as to say that the possessive apostrophe “seems to have been introduced by mistake.”
By the time Ash was writing, the apostrophe was being used to form plurals.Among those who did this was the typographer Michael Mattaire. In a grammar he brought out in 1712 he suggested that the correct plural of species was species’s. Some rival grammarians could barely contain their rage in the face of such recommendations. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the experts (all self-appointed) urgently debated the mark’s correct application.
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[H]ere’s the rub: say any of these names aloud and you’ll be struck by the fact that the apostrophe works on the eye rather than the ear. Simply put, we don’t hear apostrophes, and this is a significant factor accounting for the inconsistency with which they are used. Apostrophes can present important distinctions. For instance, compare the innocuousness of the statement “My sister’s boyfriend’s coming” and the social awkwardness implicit in “My sisters’ boyfriend’s coming.” Yet pragmatists would argue that such a distinction, rather than being marked with a single little squiggle, needs amplifying.
The aural nature of useful punctuation is an interesting point–but I’d argue that we don’t clearly hear most punctuation in spoken English. Aside from inflecting our voices upward when asking a question, or adding urgency and volume to a sentence punctuated by an exclamation point, I think most of us would be hard-pressed to hear the difference that punctuation makes. (What’s the aural difference between a semi-colon and a period? Did you just hear that em-dash? Or that one?) It seems to me that punctuation was intended to help us translate the inflections of spoken English to the page, rather than the other way around, but that’s just my guess. (Readers, please correct me if you know otherwise.)
The apostrophe, when employed correctly, offers helpful clarification on the page about the relationship between some nouns and other nouns, as well as a useful abbreviation for interpreting spoken language (she’s versus she is, for example.) And for those reasons, as well as my natural inclination to pedantry, I’ll continue to saddle up and ride to battle for the apostrophe. After all, how would you know I’m a cowgirl if I didn’t tell you by occasionally droppin’ some gees and replacin’ ‘em with apostrophes? Yippee-kai-yai-yay!
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