11/01/2011 09:39 am ET Updated Jan 01, 2012

Is It Curtains For The Apostrophe?

The other day I saw a temporary sign in a restaurant showing the way to the TOIL'ETS.

Unfortunately, I have no photographic evidence of this, but I am reproducing the word exactly as it appeared.

While this may have been a notably aberrant use of the apostrophe, most of us have seen signs that point towards TOILET'S or REST ROOMS'.

There are four common responses to noticing this kind of thing. The first is to proceed swiftly with no more than a flicker of distaste. The second is to pause and ask, facetiously, "Toilet's what?" The third is not to care at all. The fourth is to care a lot, to the extent that the sign must be amended with a marker before any further action can be taken. This last response can be creative rather than merely corrective; a friend of mine once altered a sign indicating REST ROOM'S so that it read: REST ROOM'S FILTHY. WEAR GAS MASK.

Those of us who dislike seeing errant apostrophes feel affronted when we come across a sign advertising NEW'S PAPER'S. And yes, I admit to being such a person, although I don't go as far as the jeremiahs who suggest that this haphazard punctuation portends the decline of English-speaking civilization.

But, contrary to what defenders of the apostrophe imagine, its status has long been moot. Before the seventeenth century the apostrophe was rare. The Parisian printer Geoffroy Tory promoted it in the 1520s, and it first appeared in an English text in 1559.

Initially the apostrophe was used to signify the omission of a sound. Gradually it came to signify possession. This possessive use was at first confined to the singular. However, writers were inconsistent in their placing of the punctuation mark, and in the eighteenth century, as print culture burgeoned, everything went haywire. Although it seemed natural to use an apostrophe in the possessive plural, authorities, such as the grammarian Robert Lowth, argued against this. In a volume entitled "Grammatical Institutes" (1760), John Ash went so far as to say that the possessive apostrophe "seems to have been introduced by mistake."

By the time Ash was writing, the apostrophe was being used to form plurals. Among those who did this was the typographer Michael Mattaire. In a grammar he brought out in 1712 he suggested that the correct plural of species was species's. Some rival grammarians could barely contain their rage in the face of such recommendations. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the experts (all self-appointed) urgently debated the mark's correct application.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the use of apostrophes became more consistent. But recently confusion has returned.

In Britain, the apostrophe has, for some time, been vanishing from street signs, much to the chagrin of The Apostrophe Protection Society (founded 2001). The alleged reason for this is that it saves paint. In reality, it seems to have more to do with the influence of graphic designers, who favor a clean and simple style of presentation.

The use of apostrophes in British place names is a subject of querulous debate. To the outsider, the whole business looks wildly confusing. Why is it King's Lynn but Kings Langley, Bishop's Stortford but Bishops Lydeard? Some will see this as a lovable, or at least typical, form of British eccentricity. Yet even if one knows the reasons, the inconsistency is maddening -- a trap for the unwary, which enables snootiness rather than (as apologists would claim) paying tribute to the past and buttressing local identity.

I frequently travel on the London Underground. On occasions when I neglect to pack either a book or my iPod, I amuse myself by studying the route maps pasted on the walls of the carriages. It always strikes me as droll to the point of absurdity that a station called Earl's Court sits right next to one called Barons Court. There is a credible explanation for this (it's pretty recondite), but mostly I find myself wondering quite how many children, noticing the detail, conclude that the use of apostrophes is completely wonky.

This is less of an issue in the U.S., where there are apostrophes in a mere five place names -- Martha's Vineyard being the best known. Most apostrophes were removed from American maps in 1891 by the Board on Geographic Names.

But here's the rub: say any of these names aloud and you'll be struck by the fact that the apostrophe works on the eye rather than the ear. Simply put, we don't hear apostrophes, and this is a significant factor accounting for the inconsistency with which they are used.
Apostrophes can present important distinctions. For instance, compare the innocuousness of the statement "My sister's boyfriend's coming" and the social awkwardness implicit in "My sisters' boyfriend's coming." Yet pragmatists would argue that such a distinction, rather than being marked with a single little squiggle, needs amplifying.

While this is not to say that the apostrophe should be renounced, there is plenty of evidence that it is on the way out. Like a lot of moderately successful devices, it continues to have fans - not least the people whose names contain apostrophes.

But is their increasingly fervent devotion enough to thwart the spread of a sparer and more businesslike style of punctuation, from which apostrophes will be omitted? Or is their devotion already an elegy rather than an anthem?