Out with the Aughts: The decade in language and the death of the apostrophe

According to a recent article in The New York Times, the apostrophe is an endangered species. It’s probably true, but I don’t know that I care very much. Or: Its probably true, but I dont know that I care very much. However, as long as apostrophes are around, they should be used right. You can probably see where I’m going with this one. I’m going towards “its” and “it’s,” and the appalling tendency — though naturally not by respectable newspapers — to confuse them. It’s appalling not because it’s an affront to style, but because it’s an affront to sense and logic. (Though of course it’s on sense and logic that good style is based.) The apostrophe, as we all know, signifies an elision; “it’s” stands in for “it is.” There’s no need for an apostrophe, and therefore no place, when “its” is possessive. Confusingly, and yes illogically, we do use the apostrophe in other possessive cases. We speak or write of “Henry’s hat.” That is an elision; it’s short for “Henry his hat,” which is what our comparatively remote ancestors would have written. And said too, probably, but you can bet that they stopped saying it before they stopped writing it. Writing fell into line to reflect speech, which is how things should be. But inserting an apostrophe into “its” has no bearing on how anyone pronounces anything. The word sounds the same either way. The admitted inconsistency between the two possessives, “its” and “Henry’s”, may be a good reason for letting the apostrophe die unmourned. Bernard Shaw, starting more than a hundred years ago, made a point of doing without those jumped-up commas; he would certainly have written “Henrys hat” — probably did in Pygmalion — and his prose was superb. Shaw wanted to kill the apostrophe by ignoring it; we, paradoxically, may be hastening its demise by shoving it where it doesn’t belong. My guess is that the practice started with blithe ignorance and spread through earnest imitation. That’s how bad style gets around

Robert Cushman