Apostrophes: a plea for mercy.

My second post about apostrophe’s (ok, lay off, I’m only kidding) is addressed to those people who are confident they know how to use them. And it’s a plea for mercy. Because I believe the time has come to drop the things, for the possessive case at least.

It isn’t a move that would help me personally as I stand to lose an unfair commercial advantage – but is it right that I can earn an income correcting them, while other people are judged by those in the know, harshly and negatively, when they innocently expose themselves by the way they write on websites, social media, signs and letters?

Why are we so elitist about this? The trouble is, if you’ve internally naturalised the rules, it looks bad. Bad enough to irritate.

Yet, we manage without them fine in possessive words such as ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘its’, ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’.

Why is it OK to write ‘the dress is hers’ when we must write ‘the dress is Cheryl’s’? I gently suggest that we can all understand ‘the dress is Cheryls’ if we set our hearts on it, in the interest of inclusion.

It actually looks quite sweet. I hate having to litter clusters of punctuation marks around to be correct anyway. Plant cultivar names are shown inside single quotation marks (e.g. Rosa ‘Grace’), but try writing ‘Rosa ‘Grace”s apricot petals’ without wincing, to say nothing of (heaven help me!) ‘Rosa ‘The Shepherdess”s petals’. Or should that be ‘Rosa ‘The Shepherdess’es”? Help!

Oh yes, you’re right, I could recast the sentence, but what if I don’t want to?

I wonder how much harm those little apostrophes do, scattered in error on (or missed out of) the pages of CVs of people throughout the land? Should that be CV’s? Don’t know? You’re not alone.

Tiny little minefields – such small things to outweigh so much hope, promise, aspiration…

I’ve judged people myself in the past, more times than I care to remember. So never think I’m holier than thou. If you’re in business, finding people with the right skills in written English is not easy, which means I’ve had to think quite a lot about this.

Over the years, I have read a good number of job applications, when looking for a new, caring team member with a little commercial nous who could write with confidence in the voice of a premium brand. These were often applications for marketing positions where an element of communications or social media would be involved – that is, from people you would anticipate would be far more likely to have apostrophes mastered.

I’ve even gone so far as to correct the odd CV and send it back with an encouraging note, where the qualities and character of the candidate shone so brightly that I could not bear to leave them floundering, for the sake of a little intervention. OK, perhaps writing wasn’t likely to be the best career path for them, but there are many other ways to make a contribution.

Not knowing all there is to know about apostrophes isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s the new normal. I feel confident that there are now far more native English speakers who usually or often get apostrophes wrong than those who usually or often get them right. The tide is turning, whether we like it or not.

I still firmly believe that someone who writes for a living should be able to get the basics (including apostrophes) generally right, most of the time. Those who can’t should recognise this and ask someone who does know for help. Branding is all about getting the details right, so I don’t care if this sounds harsh – and, of course, I do accept that all writers make mistakes and can benefit from a little editing. But let’s consider where this is all headed in the real world.

In linguistics classes at Liverpool University, I was taught that ‘grammar is descriptive not proscriptive’.

I may have had particularly liberal or left wing lecturer, but I do think this idea helps set things in perspective. In the medium to long term, grammar has to be pragmatic if it is to remain relevant. There may be some time lag, but grammar will eventually start to explain how people are speaking and writing, not continue to dictate what language they should be using, even though they clearly are not.

If we were able to meet two of our most acclaimed wordsmiths from the distant past – Shakespeare and Chaucer – we’d not find it easy to communicate, despite all their intelligence, humanity and linguistic prowess.

Our accents would be very different for a start, and we’d quickly realise that words and their meanings, capitalisation and sentence structures have all gradually morphed from what they were into something else. And, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure than neither would have used apostrophes of possession as we do today.

Remember how bad came to mean good not that long ago? Those meanings co-exist, as the new version didn’t catch on for everyone, but how many people use ‘gay’ these days just to mean ‘happy’? This isn’t sloppiness, it’s inexorable change. The kind of thing that happens in a living, thriving, supple, adaptable language.

I truly believe that this kind of change is happening to the apostrophe. It’s disappearing from the right place and reappearing in the wrong place before our eyes.

We can either put wrinkles in our brows by disapproving all the signs on the market that proclaim ‘carrot’s’, ‘pea’s’ and ‘lettuce’s’ or we can try and help. I am convinced that people only put apostrophes in ‘potatoes’ because they know they are supposed to put them in certain words. They recognise a final ‘s’ as a trigger for apostrophe anxiety, but don’t understand what they are expected to do or why.

The concept of omission is straightforward, if that’s all there is to it.Try explaining the concept of possession and the rules for getting this right in written language in a way that covers all cases to a bright friend or relative who doesn’t already know.

It’s not uncommon in grammar to have multitudes of exceptions that we can’t explain but have found quite easy to internalise as a group of people. Nature gives children extra mental resources in the years that they are acquiring language skills, so the average person deals with the complex rules of possession in speech just fine. Why don’t we take advantage of this by dropping the pesky apostrophe of possession from written language today – or at least making it optional?

If you’ve read this far, there’s a higher than average chance you’ve got apostrophes reasonably well mastered. But as a society, assuming society matters, we have to admit we’ve just not got this down. If adults don’t know, how are they supposed to learn? Take a look at this article – which appeared first in my google search for ‘genitive’ – and tell me how far you think it’s likely to enlighten the average person.


I’ve heard the argument, ‘if we drop the apostrophe of possession, whatever next?’ as though we should collectively hold this small punctuation mark aloft as a bastion of safety, protecting us from unimaginable grammatical horrors.

If that’s all we have to preserve the English language, we’re in a pretty pickle.

In the hope of making the playing field a little more even for those who haven’t a clue, and, at the same time, removing some of the aggravation suffered by those who do know how to use apostrophes and hate seeing them in the wrong place, I’ve written this post:

Do I need an apostrophe if a word ends in s?

For kindred spirits, those are willing to envisage a world without apostrophes of possession – perhaps, like me, in the hope of increasing social justice while preserving those helpful little apostrophes of omission that are much easier to explain for a little longer – here’s some further reading.

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