“In Shakespeare's day, when apostrophes knew their place, the air was freer. We know not where the dramatist put apostrophes, as no manuscripts of his remain. But on the title page of the beautiful first folio it says Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. No apostrophe for Will. The title of one comedy is: Loves Labour's lost; of another A Midsommer nights Dreame or A Midsommer night's Dreame.
“It is not that we know any better now. We merely know different. So would it not be a liberation and a joy to do away with the apostrophe in it's (short for it is)?”
These eminently sensible words are those of Christopher Howse writing in the Telegraph. His article has provoked a flurry of replies from furious Telegraph readers who think they remember what their English teachers told them at school. I must admit that some of the pedants who reply actually use proper grammar, others are properly punctuated, and not a few of them manage to refer correctly to the original article.
Despite what people say, apostrophes are not always easy to use: having been to Merchant Taylors’ School and Queens’ College Cambridge I learnt the simple rule about singular and plural apostrophes thoroughly and at an early age, but there is more to them than that. What about acronyms? Is it Asbo’s or Asbos or what? (See here for my answer.) What about these examples? There is Thomas’s room but Achilles’ heel and for heaven’s sake but for conscience’ sake. We have one week’s holiday, so it must surely be two weeks’ holiday (but a two-week holiday) so what about the Thirty Years War? If we write Porters Lodge, we are guilty of missing the apostrophe, but if we write Porters’ Lodge, we are suggesting that they own it, which they don’t. There are compound nouns that make the first part plural, Secretaries General and parents-in-law for example; how do we make them in the genitive case? And there are those who would insist on I appreciated John’s visiting me in hospital but would baulk at I saw John’s crossing the road. Yet, John’s crossing (of the) road against the lights caused the accident is unexceptionable.
Apostrophes in English are a menace and should be abolished. Like the more arcane aspects of spelling (e.g. dependant (noun) and dependent (adjective)) they are lovingly preserved by linguistic snobs who wish to show off their education. Abolishing them would be a first step to simplifying the written language. George Bernard Shaw never used the things. I have never heard that his written English is ambiguous or difficult to read for that reason.