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The apostrophe joins the endangered list

By Michelle Smith - posted Monday, 20 December 2010

2011 promises to be extraordinary.

The street posters pasted on building site fences and under bridges portend that 31 December is but a sliver of 24 hours that stands between us and a hitherto unknown phenomenon. This day is the gateway to not only one year, but at least two, and quite potentially 43, from all I can gather.

Break out the party poppers and those conical, metallic hats with a tinsel pom-pom on top: it's almost time to celebrate "New Years Eve". That's right, the event that increasingly does not seem to include a possessive apostrophe.


I'm not talking about the smudged, handwritten chalkboard at the pub, or those signs composed of sliding plastic letters that may not be manufactured in sets complete with punctuation marks. I mean posters, billboards and advertisements that medium- to large-scale companies have paid a graphic designer a fortune to "conceptualise" and "brand".

With all of the strategising, there is no money left to pay an editor a small fee to ensure that the present conventions of the English language are followed.

Apostrophes can be confusing. The usual trend - often dubbed the greengrocers' apostrophe - is to overcompensate for a lack of certainty about where apostrophes belong. And so we have developed a knowing admiration of signs tempting us to buy "apple's $2.49 a kg" or "flower's $7 a bunch".

This kind of sign-writer does not want to be faulted for omitting an apostrophe, so they are willing to run down their stick of chalk whenever an "s" is found on the end of a word. There is a reverence for punctuation, an anxiety even, in this misuse.

The absence of the apostrophe is a flagrant nose-thumb at the conventions of communication. Or does it represent total ignorance of the convention? If punctuation marks were endangered species, then the apostrophe would be an Amazonian rainforest frog, or a fish dependent on Great Barrier Reef coral for survival.

Already the relatively new convention of omitting possessive apostrophes in the names of some churches and towns is eroding the necessity of the little comma in the sky. No one ever remembers to put it in, so let's just get with the times and leave it out. Why should the "new year" own this "eve" in any case?


Yes, I have read my David Crystal books on the evolution of the English language. If we'd had someone like me in charge of the printing press in the 18th century, we'd all still be reading novels with a medial "s": "flowly but furely Christina fat on the faddle".

I know that language, especially spoken language, evolves quickly. We expedite that progress in a world in which people frequently travel between nations and speak multiple languages. I'm down with new words and new meanings. You won't find any complaints about "slut" no longer referring to poor housekeeping skills or "gay" not connoting "happy" from this corner.

But there are occasional reasons for pedants to stubbornly cling to rules of formal grammar, such as when a convention makes a distinction that needs to be made in written text. There are subtleties of meaning that can be expressed depending on whether you use an apostrophe or not and, if you do, how it is placed.

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About the Author

Dr Michelle Smith is a postdoctoral fellow in Literary Studies at the University of Melbourne, where she is researching colonial Australian girls' print culture. She blogs at

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