It has its diehard fans, but do we really need this punctuation mark, asks PETER TRUDGILL
The English word apostrophe comes from a Greek term meaning ‘turning away’: in Modern Greek apó means ‘from’ and strophí is ‘turn’. As used in English, apostrophe refers to the usage of the punctuation mark ‘ to indicate the omission of a letter from a word.
Often, letters are omitted in writing to indicate that a sound has been left out in pronunciation, as in archaic and poetic o’er for over. But the exact meaning of ‘omitted’ here needs some thought. In English, omissions are generally optional. We can write both she’s and she is, because both of these represent possible pronunciations. In other languages, this is not always the case – in French, ‘the child’ is l’enfant, with le enfant not being a possible spelling or pronunciation. And in Italian l’amore ‘love’ is the only possibility.
Apostrophes are obviously not particularly important in any language because we don’t use them when we are speaking. It is true that they do play a role in the written language in distinguishing between pairs of words in English like well and we’ll, wed and we’d, were and we’re. But nothing very serious will happen if you write Im instead of I’m, hes instead of he’s, theyre instead of they’re, or dont instead of don’t. Perhaps someone might confuse cant with can’t, or ill with I’ll, but it’s hard to think of a reasonable context where that might happen.
Past-tense verb forms such as loved and moved used to be pronounced with two syllables: lov-ed, mov-ed. When speakers began omitting the vowel of the final syllable, this was then often indicated in writing by using an apostrophe: lov’d, mov’d. This could be useful for poets wanting to indicate the number of syllables they needed in a particular line of verse. But now that everybody speaking modern English always pronounces loved and moved as one syllable, we no longer bother to do that with past tense forms – although it really does seem better to write ‘she ok’d the contract’.
The origin of the possessive apostrophe also lies in the omission of a letter. The plural of fox is written foxes but, even though the two forms are pronounced exactly the same, the possessive form is written fox’s, indicating that an original letter e has been omitted. This use of an apostrophe in the possessive, as in fox’s, later spread to instances where no letter e had been omitted, as in John’s, previously Johns.
An apostrophe was also commonly used in the plural forms of words borrowed from foreign languages, such as folio’s (with the e of folioes being omitted), a practice which continues today in greengrocers’ spellings like tomato’s and potato’s.
Some commentators believe it’s absolutely vital to use the possessive apostrophe correctly, because people will be confused if we don’t distinguish between plural cats, singular possessive cat’s, and plural possessive cats’. But these rules were not established until the middle of the 19th century, and we managed perfectly well without them before that. In any case, when we are speaking we pronounce all these words exactly the same: I don’t ever remember wondering, in all my many decades as a native English speaker, whether someone was actually referring to more than one cat or not.
If we don’t need apostrophes in speaking, why do we need them in writing? Can’t we just get rid of them? German has made a move in that direction. Wie geht es? ‘How’s it going?’ is usually abbreviated to Wie gehts?. Before the spelling reform of 1996, this was most often written with an apostrophe: Wie geht’s, but in the new reformed spelling system, the apostrophe is no longer necessary. Punctuation generally is a vitally important tool for indicating features of the spoken language, like intonation, which cannot otherwise be indicated in writing. But this is not true of English apostrophes.