One of the punctuation marks that causes students the most confusion is the apostrophe. I see plural nouns with apostrophes and possessive nouns without them, and sometimes I just see random apostrophes thrown into any old word that includes an “s.” I see “it’s” and “its'” when the writer really intends to use “its.” My students’ current writing assignment involves plaintiffs named Vincent and Cheryl Simms. In reading students’ drafts, I have seen “Mr. Simms injury,” “Mr. Simm’s injury,” “Mr. Simms’ injury,” and “Mr. Simms’s injury.” (Just in case any of you are reading this post, I prefer Simms’, though I would also accept Simms’s.) Some students have simply given up and written “the injury suffered by Mr. Simms.” I don’t mean to criticize my current students; I have noticed the same issues over the past several years, and my students, past or present, are not alone.
The city council in Birmingham, England, has banned the use of apostrophes in its street signs. Evidently, the council members grew tired of using their meetings to debate whether various street names should include apostrophes. One council member was quoted by MSNBC as follows: “Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed.” He continued, “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.” You can read more about the council’s decision here.
Not everyone has thrown in the towel, however.
Two Dartmouth graduates, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, formed a group called the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), and they travelled the country fixing typos along the way. They, too, noted that one of the most common errors was the misused apostrophe. Alas, TEAL’s quest came to an end last year after the two visited the Grand Canyon and corrected errors on what turned out to be a historic sign; they used a permanent marker to add a comma and an apostrophe, and they used Wite Out to delete a misplaced apostrophe. What TEAL viewed as a public service, however, the government viewed as conspiracy to vandalize government property. Deck and Herson were ordered to pay to restore the sign and sentenced to probation, and they are forbidden from entering any of the national parks during their probation. The Chicago Tribune provides more details about the TEAL incident here.
Though I have no intent to pick up where TEAL left off, and I do not intend to take my permanent markers and Wite Out on the road, I will continue to fight the good fight in my classroom. Long live the apostrophe!