30 January 2009

Apostrophes are difficult. One simple way to deal with them is to abolish them. That’s what Birmingham City Council has decided to do with apostrophes on road signs.

I’m not one of the pedantic purists who believe that this will lead to the end of civilization as we know it, but I do find this decision baffling. The apostrophe is difficult in English since it performs two functions: elision (it’s for it is) and possession (Joe’s cat). This seems to be the reason that stumps and confuses otherwise articulate and fluent writers. Other European languages – at least the ones that I am reasonably familiar with – use apostrophes for elision (e.g. German) and forming the plural (e.g. Dutch), but not for forming possessive. In English, it will be difficult to use the apostrophe only for elision, since it would be unclear if a word is a plain plural, single possessive, or plural possessive: kings, king’s, kings’.

So, to be honest, I cannot see any way of avoiding the apostrophe for the moment.