by Amy Haines
For my dissertation, I decided to look at APOSTROPHES! (Surprisingly, something a lot of people care greatly about…). There are plenty of websites (Apostrophe Thief – http://www.apostrophethief.co.uk/, Apostrophe Protection Society – http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/, Apostrophe Abuse – http://www.apostropheabuse.com/, etc.) dedicated to the “currently much abused punctuation mark”. Apostrophes are thought to be “a serious problem that plagues our entire planet”.
The evidence for such claims, however, appeared to be based on collections of examples found in the public domain (such as the pictures in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=oiQqJtJZIrU). At the time, there wasn’t any research to back up these claims. So I endeavoured to find out the truth… (Amy to the rescue…ahem). Is non-standard apostrophe use truly widespread, or does the literature exaggerate?
I was also quite surprised at the attitudes expressed in the literature. Bill Bryson, for example, described people who use non-standard apostrophes as “linguistic Neanderthals” (bit extreme Bill!). This led me to question whether such opinions reflect general public attitude, or just the attitudes of a select few.
So my research questions were set – attitudes and proficiency in apostrophes. But before I could judge whether my informants used standard or non-standard apostrophes, I had to get a hold of the rules myself. However, the rules are not clear-cut. For example, should “Doctors Surgery” have an apostrophe? Does the surgery belong to the doctors? If so, does it belong to one doctor, or all the doctors? OR, could “doctors” be seen as an adjective, describing the type of surgery? Another problematic area is plural numbers and letters. 1980s or 1980’s? DVD’s or DVDs? 1’s or 1s? The literature is inconclusive. And that’s not even to mention words ending in s…
Anyway, once I got my head around the rules, I devised a writing task to test proficiency and an interview to gauge attitudes. And I found that errors rarely occurred in contractions, but there was some confusion in possessives and other uses. The most frequent error was plural possessives (the boys’ classroom, the girls’ dresses). As for attitudes, the majority of informants did not express negative attitudes towards non-standard apostrophes. They merely described it as “right” or “wrong”. Overall, I think it is fair to say that the literature did indeed exaggerate the extent of the apostrophe problem in both attitudes and proficiency (hoorah).
So this is a very brief summary of my dissertation. I was really pleased to do a project, because it allowed me to explore something I was interested in and I feel I have made my dent in the linguistic world (one of the first to do a study about apostrophes woo!)
If you want to find out more, read my dissertation, continue my groundbreaking research etc. please feel free to contact me (I’m sure Jeanette would give you my email address). And remember, don’t judge a writer by its apostrophe! 🙂