In which I mourn apostrophes

So, I’m recruiting at the moment and it’s something of an eye-opener. The covering letters have been ghastly, to the point where I think there must be an automated covering letter generator, into which prospective employees load a few generic skills. Then they push a button and the generator vomits forth a few paragraphs of meaningless business jargon in seemingly random order. Still, at least they’re helpful in weeding out those who can’t be bothered to sort out even glaring errors.

If I have survived this trial by verbiage, I’m next faced with the CVs of doom. Time after time, hopeful candidates reference their ‘GCSE’s and A-Level’s’. It is, of course, difficult for me to imagine that anyone who can perpetrate such a horror has actually obtained so much as a cycling proficiency badge, let alone a degree and a couple of years of work experience. My colleagues tell me it would be harsh to ask interviewees to explain the use of the possessive apostrophe, while a certain nervousness to their demeanor suggests that the next email I get from them will have been pretty carefully proofread.

To be fair (or generous, as I like to think of it), once I’d forced myself past the list of dubious academic achievements, most of the CVs weren’t that bad. If anything, this adds to my concern. Why can’t these relatively intelligent, ostensibly decently educated people spot such a basic mistake? It makes me think that their use of the apostrophe is not automatic; and that, generally, no one cares.

Although, in fact, it isn’t that no one cares, it’s that the problem is so egregious that it is very hard to stand against the tide. I care, but if I were being properly exacting, I would have no one to interview, and so pragmatism wins out. In turn, this makes me think that the poor little apostrophe is heading into that dark night.

Which made me wonder, how did apostrophes come into being in the first place? Off to Wikipedia (caveat lector), which says that the possessive apostrophe is in fact the Saxon genitive, and is a marker of what used to be an -es case ending in Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Over time, the ‘e’ dropped out, and the apostrophe is used to show its absence. It’s a convention that English picked up from French as late as the 16th century, and which only became really entrenched in the 19th century.

On the one hand, then, the possessive apostrophe is a relative newcomer to the language. On the other hand, it’s an indicator and a reminder of how language evolves. It might be that the apostrophe fades gradually away, and if no one uses it then perhaps that’s right. And then I’ll be sad, because it’s not just a mark on the page, it’s a link to the past.

Author: musingsfromthesofa

I've run out of books. Again.

7 thoughts on “In which I mourn apostrophes”

  1. The law of conservation of apostrophes dictates that for every apostrophe that should be there but isn’t, there’s one that is there one that should NOT be there but is. For example: “Dougs bar is now open on Sunday’s!” By this law, the apostrophe itself will never disappear, but people will forget what it’s for, if they haven’t already.

  2. Mr W – I like your law. Although it is sad, because the apostrophe will survive but be forever misused.

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