Wherefore art thou, o Apostrophe? It does seem that we are losing the apostrophe, that up-in-the-air comma used to show possession. Either the apostrophe is omitted entirely where it needs to be inserted, or it is misused.
A business has the dilemma of deciding to use the apostrophe or not because of the extra expense, especially for big businesses whose logos are emblazoned on huge signs: McDonald’s, Hardee’s, and Wendy’s pay for the space the apostrophe occupies, but Days Inn and Walgreens would rather not evidently. The newest Bojangles’ being erected on Wayne Memorial Drive will likely use the traditional signage — the apostrophe perched above the final “s.”
A professor at UNC Charlotte, Mark West, writing in the Feb. 2, 2019, Charlotte Observer, notes that the very first Bojangles’ opened in Charlotte in 1977. While he likes the star over the “j,” he takes issue with the slogan, “Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits,” because the ‘n means and, and it needs a matching apostrophe to show the absence of the letter d.
West traces this use of ‘n to the 1950s “when somebody in the music business decided and was too long and hard to pronounce, resulting in the phrase rock ‘n’ roll.” This use West approves because the apostrophes do their job of substituting for missing letters, those omitted for convenience or novelty.
Of course, Bojangles’ has the apostrophe at the end because of its meaning “the restaurant belonging to someone surnamed Bojangles” or honoring the actual person named Bojangles.
Who was this Bojangles? Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was an American tap dancer and actor born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1878. If you have seen the child actor Shirley Temple and a black man tap dancing up and down a flight of steps, then you have seen Mr. Bojangles, who starred in four films with Shirley Temple. Acknowledged as the greatest tap dancer ever, a statue in Richmond’s Jackson Ward, the neighborhood where he grew up, honors him.
While punctuation rules do change (witness the spacing after periods — used to be two spaces, now one space), change comes slowly. For example, I recall seeing the hyphen in these words from books printed in the 1930s: to-day, to-morrow, and good-by, though a dictionary indicates that word with or without the hyphen. It is a contraction for God Be with Ye, a sentiment that farewells in other languages express: Adios (with God in Spanish) and Adieu (with God in French). We have lost hyphens in the instance of today and tomorrow and in several other words, too.
Some sources say that standardized spelling and punctuation occurred in the U.S. around 1850. Before that year, variable spellings and punctuations abounded in the printed word. According to the Second World Almanac of Inventions, a Greek mathematician invented three punctuation marks: the stop (our period), the full-stop (the colon), and the half-stop (the semicolon).
The apostrophe saves effort and space, too. Witness this contraction, I’d’ve, meaning “I would have.” Contractions are fine in informal speech and writing, but they are not preferred in academic, business, and professional settings where a level of formality prevails. In these settings, we need our “Sunday dress” grammar and usage, not our “blue jean” grammar and usage. Of course, even Sunday dress seems to have become a custom from the past.
The apostrophe has consistency for indicating the singular possession (something belongs to one person or thing). Mistakes can occur when we need to show plural possession (more than one thing belongs to many persons or things). For example, we have the baby’s toy, but the babies’ toys, the ox’s burden but the oxen’s burdens, the man’s job but the men’s jobs. Because spelling is inconsistent from the singular to the plural, we must pay attention to the placement of the apostrophe.
If we place a sign in front of our home, we can write The Williamses, meaning people with the surname of Williams live here. We can also write on the sign The Williamses,’ meaning this residence belongs to several people named Williams, as in The Williamses’ Home. However, if we said this word Williamses, it would sound like Williams, without the pronunciation of the extra –es. The same rule would apply for any words that would be awkward-sounding because of the extra –s sounds.
Now when you sign those Christmas cards, you can write “from the Morrises,” meaning everyone with the surname Morris sends greetings. If you use the apostrophe, you could mean from the Morrises’ house.
In 2003 two scholars presented a paper for a journal entitled TESL, The Structure of English. Christina Cavella and Robin A. Kernodle trace the history of the apostrophe from its Greek origins, apostrephein, meaning “to turn away,” a device in which the speaker turns away from the audience to address another person. It came to mean something missing, the absence of letters or sounds.
They say the apostrophe was introduced from the French in the 16th century, but its use was not standardized in English until mid-19th century. Another source says the apostrophe originated in 1509 in an Italian edition of the poems of Petrarch or in 1529, an invention of the French printer Geoffroy Tory, also inventor of the accent (ó) and the cedilla (ç).
Ammon Shea, author of “Bad English,” in an interview with Mignon Fogarty, agrees that “apostrophes are sources of never-ending trouble.” He says that Shakespeare did not use the plural possessive very often.
Some grammarians suggest getting rid of the apostrophe because context clues suffice for determining the meaning. Cavella and Kernodle note that British playwright George Bernard Shaw so disdained the apostrophe that he omitted its use in all his plays. But can we really imagine the computer keyboard without an apostrophe?
Such are the decisions of the future: Does usage change because people are too lazy to learn mechanical correctness in language? Does it change to save time and money? Only time will reveal the answers to such questions.