O apostrophe, wherefore art thou?

Do you see what I did there? Then you’re either a poet or an academic. Or one of those precocious novelists who is almost smart enough to be a poet. [ducks and runs for cover]. Why does it seem like the humble apostrophe is dangling over the abyss these days?

Of all the aspects of grammar and punctuation taught in schools, apostrophes seem to pose one of the biggest challenges, as evidenced by everything from apparent errors in texts and emails to signage on the street. Why do people struggle with the apostrophe in particular? Matthews describes it as “a difficult mark” because it has two uses. But the biggest problem with the apostrophe, he says, is that in its possessive usage, it makes a singular noun sound “exactly the same as the plural – and because there’s no difference when you speak it, you have to have the understanding of its purpose in order to get it right when you write it.”

Apostrophes’ silence is a big part of their trickiness, agrees MacKenzie. “We have nothing to go on when we want to write them down, apart from these arbitrary rules that we’ve been taught.” MacKenzie observes that we cope without apostrophes in spoken language. For example, if someone says ‘the king’s crown’. As the apostrophe is not pronounced, we don’t know if one was intended, yet we intuit that the possessive is meant, rather than the plural of kings, because it wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

Inconsistency is another reason we find apostrophes challenging. MacKenzie says there are some “weird little exceptions to the system”. For example, we’re taught to make a possessive by adding an apostrophe ‘s’, which works for nouns, but then the possessive pronoun ‘its’ prescriptively doesn’t have an apostrophe. She observes that “people love making fun of those people who mix up it’s with an apostrophe and its without – but, well, it is possessive so why doesn’t it have it have an apostrophe? It really should!” And as she says: “the more exceptions to the rule, the harder the rule becomes to learn.”

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