Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Punctuation in Peril

Is the apostrophe on the way out? Though he’d be at the head of the line to mourn the apostrophe’s demise if it should pass away, in an essay for The Huffington Post, Henry Hitchings (The Language Wars) posits just that.
Before the seventeenth century the apostrophe was rare. The Parisian printer Geoffroy Tory promoted it in the 1520s, and it first appeared in an English text in 1559.

Initially the apostrophe was used to signify the omission of a sound. Gradually it came to signify possession. This possessive use was at first confined to the singular. However, writers were inconsistent in their placing of the punctuation mark, and in the eighteenth century, as print culture burgeoned, everything went haywire. Although it seemed natural to use an apostrophe in the possessive plural, authorities, such as the grammarian Robert Lowth, argued against this. In a volume entitled "Grammatical Institutes" (1760), John Ash went so far as to say that the possessive apostrophe "seems to have been introduced by mistake."
Though it is universally misused -- served wherever English is spoken -- the apostrophe would seem to be in greatest official danger in the United Kingdom:
In Britain, the apostrophe has, for some time, been vanishing from street signs, much to the chagrin of The Apostrophe Protection Society (founded 2001). The alleged reason for this is that it saves paint. In reality, it seems to have more to do with the influence of graphic designers, who favor a clean and simple style of presentation.
Hitchings’ piece is well-considered, quite lengthy and here.



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