According to The Times yesterday the campaign to save the apostrophe has ended.
If we are not sure whether someone has said,
Their mothers walked off.
Their mother’s walked off.
we can ask for clarification: Both their mothers or just her mother?
When we read these words it is unlikely that we will be able to ask the writer for clarification and the apostrophe makes things clear.
Apostrophes are inserted where letters are omitted:
It’s impossible. (It is impossible.)
You can’t (You cannot.)
When we talk to one another we are used to hearing one another contract phrases that are used frequently. It is natural to take short cuts like this, to say can’t and don’t and won’t to save effort and to say what we want to say as quickly as possible. These routine, familiar, contracted phrases make for comfortable speaking. In writing, apostrophes remind us of the bits that are left out.
Apostrophes are also used to show possession, or ownership:
Kevin’s ice cream, the children’s party, the players’ girlfriends
Apostrophes – explore a bit of history
When writing and printing really were hard work writers and printers took short cuts. Words were carved or chiselled in wood or stone or written laboriously with ink using pens that had to be dipped about every six words or so. Making curved shapes was particularly difficult – try painting a mixture of curved letters, a, e and o for example and then try v, w and x. (Why do you think there are more straight lines in capital letters?)
Tell me then; how much easier would it be to carve an apostrophe, especially a rather straight one ‘ rather than a small e?
Here are the opening words of the Christmas story written about one thousand five hundred years ago in Old English.
Joseph, Cristes foster- faeder, ferde mid Marian….
[ferde is related to modern German, fahren – to travel, and to our Farewell, and mid (modern German mit) – with – survivesin midwife]
In Old English there was a common possessive ending, es, which we can see here in Cristes. Now we can read:
Joseph, Christ’s foster-father, went with Mary…. And there is our modern apostrophe replacing that awkward e shape.
And now we can see that our apostrophe’s two functions, indicating the omission of a letter and indicating possession, might well share the same origin, the need to make life easier.