Recently I received a work email from the staff cafeteria with the subject line: “Apologies for the coffee’s…”
You’re probably thinking that, once opened, the email would continue something like this: “Apologies for the coffee’s burnt flavor over the last few days. We’re working on it.” Or, if you’re as guilty of anthropomorphism as I am, then you might even be expecting something along the lines: “Apologies for the coffee’s rude comments this morning. They were totally uncalled for.”
But instead, upon opening the email, I read: “Apologies for the coffee’s over the last two weeks. We have now fixed the coffee machine.”
Coffee’s? What ever happened to the basic plural coffees, no apostrophe required? Was I the only one listening in sixth-grade English class?
Well, maybe not just me, but also the short Jewish boy who was a fellow editor of the school’s literary journal and who, perhaps due to his extraordinarily bushy eyebrows, was blind to all the sniggering at his expense. And like me, he probably went on to become an English teacher who bellows at his word processor every time it needlessly underlines in green any phrase where “which” appears without a comma, shamelessly demonstrating its ignorance of the enormous difference between a defining and non-defining relative clause!
But at least, one would assume, Microsoft Word knows when to correctly dispense an apostrophe. And shouldn’t that friendly little green squiggle be all the support we need to churn out documents that are models of punctuation etiquette? However, when I type in God love’s you or Pig’s can fly (real-life examples of signage errors I found at http://fiveprime.org/hivemind/Tags/apostrophe,grammar), I get no such reminder! Whats’ happening here?!
OK, so the widespread misuse of the apostrophe may not be a crime punishable by death, but it is no less infuriating. The veins in my temples are throbbing now just thinking about it! However, I can prove to you that I possess a certain degree of forgiveness on the matter by admitting that, despite the appalling punctuation and faulty coffee machine, I still buy coffee from the staff cafeteria. (All my attempts, however, to uncover which of the workers is the author of the incriminating email have proven fruitless; evidently, poor punctuation isn’t so apparent in speech.)
But perhaps I overlook their punctuation error not because they make quite a decent single-shot latte but because at least they attempted to use an apostrophe (though no doubt under a great deal of pressure given that they serve scones and sushi not just to anyone but to staff at the School of Languages.) So many others don’t even try. Go to Kmart and you’ll see departments labelled “Childrens toys” or “Girls clothes”. It’s as if they’re trying to say, “We’ve already used enough letters here and we’re on a really tight budget with the economy and all. We just couldn’t afford an apostrophe.”
You might suggest that, if I want apostrophes, I shouldn’t go to Kmart but somewhere a bit more upper class, as the middle classes have had to give up such silly luxuries in these tough times.
But I don’t want to turn this into an ugly class issue, because I’m a believer in the power of good punctuation to transcend class, gender or race. In fact, when I’m able to stand back and be a bit more impartial on the matter, I can see that the demise of the apostrophe is all just a natural part of linguistic evolution, and who I am to interfere in this battle for survival of the fittest? I recognize that that the apostrophe may become the punctuation equivalent of a dinosaur. A small, flightless herbivore, but a dinosaur nonetheless. And, as far as I know, apart from the meat-eater in my house who growls, throws forks and rubs soil into the carpet, the dinosaurs are extinct.
Full extinction may take a few more years yet, but it is quite conceivable that it may happen in my lifetime and that – should I be so lucky to one day become a little old lady – my own grandson will arrange his toys neatly in a row and announce, “Look, Grandma, this one’s a triceratops, this one’s a brontosaurus and this one’s an apostrophe.”