In the research project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public at the Leiden Centre for Linguistics, we are building the Hyper Usage Guide of English or HUGE database currently made up of 76 usage guides. One of our aims within the project is to explore the popularity and to track the history of English usage items by using the database. In this English Today feature I briefly look into the history of the apostrophe, the most disputed punctuation mark in the English language.
Since its introduction in the eighteenth century, the possessive apostrophe became a topic of interest for the authors of usage guides. Today, however, its usefulness continues to be disputed and its existence is still rather unstable. In the realm of social media which call for linguistic and orthographic economy, such as Twitter, the apostrophe is first to be eliminated.
In spite of what currently seems to be a more liberal attitude towards orthographic rules, the misuse of the possessive apostrophe is still a common topic in letters-to-the-editor sections of newspapers and online discussions on language use. The possessive apostrophe is a typical example of a cultural shibboleth that separates the inner circle of the standard language users from the rest. Is the possessive apostrophe on its way out or is it here to stay, at least in the more formal genres? Share your thoughts with us on this and other topics concerning language use on our blog.