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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Apostrophes under attack as being unnecessary, pesky

By Maggie Walter
May 29, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Pity the poor apostrophe. This little, but often misused, punctuation mark is under attack.

"Theres a Question Mark Hanging Over the Apostrophes Future," a May 15 article by Barry Newman in the Wall Street Journal about the apostrophe kerfuffle, outlines the arguments, history, reasons and disagreements quite well.

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The article focuses on a disappointed New York family that wants to see one of its ancestors honored with his name on a mountain. While there's some disagreement about what to call James Cameron's mountain — Jimmy's Peak, Jimmie's Peak or James' Peak, all involved in the request agree on using the apostrophe.

But not so fast, says the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names established by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890. It follows the 1906 edict from President Theodore Roosevelt in which he ordered the standardization of geographic names for federal use.

And ever since then, the board has been ruthless in erasing apostrophes from place names. And what the board says is what you see on road signs and maps.

That's the rule. Mapmakers and road sign creators continue the contentious decision to leave out the curlicue mark.

The bottom line is that what I've always known as Pike's Peak is now Pikes Peak. (For some unfathomable reason, Martha's Vineyard and Clark's Mountain in Oregon remain.) The namers want to make sure everyone knows Zebulon Pike and his descendants do not own the peak. 

We use the same logic in the Columbia Missourian Stylebook for the Speakers Circle entry. It says: "No apostrophe. It is where speakers gather, but it does not belong to the speakers." The same applies to the Voters Guide entry.

But, there are folks who want to stamp out every apostrophe, saying there's no need for the bothersome punctuation mark.

And it's not a new movement. As early as 1902, George Bernard Shaw advocated for the death of the apostrophe. He wrote: “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Matthew J.X. Malady's article, "Are Apostrophes Necessary? Not Really, No," published Thursday at slate.com, cites Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive sciences at MIT who focuses on how people process language and how it is used for communication.

Gibson, Malady writes, says nothing much would happen if apostrophes disappeared. As always, we'd move on sans apostrophes. 

The movement gets additional support from Kill the Apostrophe website, an anonymous group that argues that the punctuation mark is merely arbitrary and not a requirement for comprehension.

Its opening salvo says: "This website is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.”

Most of its arguments seem somewhat churlish to me — the rules are too hard; nobody uses it correctly; a waste of time to type and remember, but reason No. 4 in the six-point manifesto for killing the apostrophe seems to have some value. It argues that text messaging and its abbreviated language makes "it timeconsuming to use them. Why give ourselves this stress when itll make no difference anyway?"

The Internet has indeed already changed the use of apostrophes as the web doesn't really care for them. As Newman points out, McDonald's and Walgreen's among others lose their apostrophe mark in website names. 

Not surprisingly, John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society disagrees. Its website is peppered with misuses and advice for proper usage of the apostrophe. There are many examples of what's called the "greengrocer's apostrophe" — two dozen's for 99 cents. One of the most egregious example I've ever found was at bourbon distillery in eastern Kentucky. Signs for the restrooms said "mens" and "womens." My traveling companions were not surprised that I pointed out the errors to the museum's docent. They were surprised, however, that the woman didn't seem to understand what the problem was.  

Since English is a living, breathing language, I think the apostrophe still has some life in it, but I won't be surprised to see the arguments continue or that one day, the little rascal disappears altogether. For now, there are 26 apostrophes in this column, and hopefully, they are all used correctly.

* * *

For April, there were 11 participants and 12 corrections in the Show Me the Errors Contest. The winner of prizes for April is Karen Mitchell, and she will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester. Mitchell is an assistant professor in the convergence journalism faculty.

If you would like to join in and be eligible to win the prizes for the May contest, simply read the articles posted at ColumbiaMissourian.com, and, if you find an error, click on the form at the end of the story and tell us about it. At the end of the month, there will be a drawing for the winner.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She's engulfed in the Dow Jones Editing Workshop this week at the Journalism School. Under the guidance of Brian Brooks, eight top-notch editing students from across the Midwest, including two MU students, are spending the week getting a full immersion in copy editing skills as they prepare for a 10-week paid summer internship. They'll be joining the staff at prestigious news sites, including the Indianapolis Star, Kansas City Star and the Detroit News.