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John Richards, a 96-year-old retired British journalist, is shutting down the Apostrophe Protection Society he founded eighteen years ago, because “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.” There has been considerable tut-tutting in the press, and people keep sending me links under the assumption that I too will be dismayed.

I am not.

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The first thing to keep in mind is that anyone who starts talking about a rising tide of ignorance and laziness is a crank. Ignorance has always been at high tide in our species, and nattering about laziness, particularly in language usage, merely labels people the speaker sees as social inferiors. Turn away.

Literacy is probably at a higher level today than at any time in human history, but proficiency, as always, varies, and—here we have the second thing—the apostrophe is a treacherous piece of punctuation.

David Crystal explains in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation that the apostrophe is a relatively recent arrival, appearing in English in the late sixteenth century, with grammarians trying to standardize rules for its use as late as the end of the nineteenth century. (Jane Austen wrote her’s, and nobody had any problem with that.)

We have adapted the apostrophe to three different uses, and it is easy for writers to confuse them.

We use the apostrophe to indicate omission of letters, as in contractions (can’t, won’t, didn’t), and there is usually no problem with that. This is its oldest use in English.

We use the apostrophe to indicate possession (John’s, Mary’s, the cat’s). But as the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook discovered as they proposed to simplify their entry on possessives, there is widespread disagreement about making possessives of words ending in s—whether to use ’s or a simple apostrophe. The discussion grew heated, and the editors retired from the field somewhat battered.

We use the apostrophe—sometimes—to make plurals. Not, for Fowler’s sake, names or other nouns; no the Smith’s on the Christmas cards. But AP countenances making individual letters plural with ’s (all A’s), and the New York Times Stylebook insists on ’s to make plurals of abbreviations and numerals (VCRs, size 7’s).

Current usage is a complete muddle. The grocer’s apostrophe (leek’s, potato’s) persists, but we have dropped the apostrophe from words that used to be thought of as truncations (’phone, ’cello). Some businesses use an apostrophe (McDonald’s), and others drop it (Harrods).

As John Lawler pointed out in a comment, the apostrophe is exclusive to writing; you make all your plurals and possessives in speech without uncertainty. And in your casual writing nobody really cares how you use it. Let me repeat that: Nobody cares. It’s not an underpinning of civilization. It’s only for formal writing, as for publication, that the conventions and stylebook variations are to be observed. Leave that to the professionals. That’s why I’m here.

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