…those uncouth bacilli
—George Bernard Shaw on apostrophes
According to the 13thcentury writer, John of Wales, whenever a scribe made a mistake in a manuscript, it would be attributed to the baleful influence of the demon Titivillus. This evil creature would hang around the scriptorium encouraging weary monks to omit part of a glyph here, misread an uncial there or simply misspell a common word. Happily for the souls of the men of letters, though, the apostrophe at least was one less thing to worry about in the Middle Ages.
As anyone who has ever visited a social networking site can testify, the spirit of Titivillus lives on. A recent discussion on Facebook I was drawn to involved a very articulate PhD student patiently explaining to a group of non-scientists the significance of mutations in mitochondrial DNA. His post was a model of simplicity and clarity. The only distraction was his uncanny ability to misspell itsas it’severy time. Everytime. If ever there were an argument against retaining the apostrophe and keeping Titivillus busy, this alone would be sufficient.
Of course I’m aware of the possessive apostrophe’s role in resolving ambiguity (read Kingsley Amis’s classic example here), but the fact that the possessive of the third-person pronoun ‘it’doesn’thave an apostrophe while possessive nouns do would seem to argue for (yet another) re-appraisal of its true purpose. I recently saw the apostrophe grudgingly but accurately referred to as “an unstable mark of punctuation” by one of its supporters, who admitted that dropping it in certain cases would have “minuscule impact”.
It would seem, though, that the apostrophe’s lack of ‘stability’ lies in its dim and distant past. Introduced from France in the 16thcentury, it was originally used in writing to mark the omission of a letter which was normally not pronounced, such as the silent ‘e’ in turn’d(also, unsurprisingly when you think about it, the ‘l’ in shou’dand wou’d). The practice of using apostrophe + sto indicate possession follows on from the earlier use of –esto mark the genitive (actually a more accurate term than ‘possessive’) with the ‘e’ now omitted. This applied to pronouns too: her’s, it’s, our’s, your’s, their’s. Jane Austen, for example, regularly spelled them with apostrophes, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, was known to happily alternate between the forms even in the same paragraph. Indeed, the genitive/possessive form it’spredominated in English literature in the 17thand 18thcenturies; that is, until grammarians decided to invoke the apostrophe’s original use purely as a marker of omission and use the same form to replace ‘tisas the usual contraction of it is, while repositioning the unapostrophized itsas the possessive pronoun. Small wonder people have problems with the apostrophe!
Leaving aside other uses of the apostrophe such as pluralizing abbreviations and numerals (the 80’s, minding your p’s and q’s) and misuses like the infamous ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (anyone for strawberry’s?), the its/it’sconfusion neatly illustrates the problems it can cause in the digital age where everyone is their own editor and hey, it’s not War and Peace, man. No less an authority than the respected lexicographer Robert Burchfield of the OED has even suggested that the apostrophe “is probably coming to the end of its usefulness”, although I would suggest there’s still life in the old mark yet.
It’s easy to understand George Bernard Shaw’s detestation of the apostrophe when you’re confronted by great chunks of text liberally spattered with deviant tadpoles. It’s not even certain what exactly an apostrophe is. As a means of marking the genitive in writing, it might come under the heading ‘grammar’, but it’s definitely a punctuation mark, isn’t it? Yet when it comes to distinguishing homophones like their,thereand they’re, it’s a question of spelling, surely? In fact, one well-known linguist, Professor Geoffrey Pullum of Edinburgh University, has proposed that it should simply be considered the 27thletterof the English alphabet.
Whether it’s grammar, punctuation or spelling, the apostrophe provides a fascinating link to the past. If the past teaches us anything about language fashions, it’s that there’s really no need to get terribly exercised at a misplaced or missing character during an informal exchange. We can’t even be certain how long it will continue to serve its current functions anyway. And it’s good to know that they’rethere are plenty of occasion’soccasions when we can cheerfully ignore Titivillus.