Seems that since the 1950’s, apostrophes have been dropping from Britains (uh ‘scuse me) Britain’s street signs. And now Birmingham, England’s second-largest city, is officially banning the apostrophe from all its street signs. Why? According to AP reporter, Meera Selva, they’re “confusing and old-fashioned.” Ah the poor misused, maligned and misunderstood apostrophe.
If you want to read a really good piece on the history of this wee mark, read How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe. Seems it’s had its users up in arms from the start.
The apostrophe had its origins in the Greek word “apostrephein” which means “to turn away” and was a “rhetorical device in which a speaker turned from the audience to address another person.” Eventually the term came to refer to something that was missing.
I like the little guy. It matters. It lends clarity. It’s a litmus test winnowing those who know and care about language from those who don’t. Yet I learned that even G.B. Shaw refused to use the apostrophe in any of his plays; no one can challenge his skill with the quill.
The authors of the aforementioned History predict that as we move increasingly to electronic communication, which favors speed over careful composition of the English language, keyboard makers will eventually drop the apostrophe altogether, leaving us to gather meaning from context alone. Where will that leave our right pinky? Flailing impotently every time we write about the bells of hell or the lane of lovers? What might take its place — a smiley face emoticon?
I can imagine a future conversation with a grandchild — “Yes, sweetie, before you were born keyboards came with a little squiggle called an ‘apostrophe.’ It had many jobs — replacing missing letters in a contraction; indicating not one, but three kinds of possession; showing a quote within a quote. It even had a job for visual esthetics but that one, too, began to fade toward the late 1990’s. It’s a new world, now. No apostrophes.”
And shell likely wonder, “Whats the big deal?”