By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
According to the laws of language we need them, but are apostrophes really necessary? Not according to those fighting the punctuation purists.
Any advocate of a punctuation cull risks offending a lot of people.
More than 2.5m people have read Lynne Truss's bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which attacks infringements of the rules of written English language.
But linguist Kate Burridge says punctuation could do with being cut down and the rules of language reviewed.
Her new book Weeds in the Garden of Words considers how the "glorious garden" of the English language has evolved. Just as one weed is another gardener's flower, she says, the same goes for words and their usage in English - sometimes we just haven't realised their virtues.
Burridge's views on punctuation counter those of self-confessed punctuation pedant Truss.
Take the possessive apostrophe, described by Truss as "our long-suffering little friend". It is often surplus to requirements, according to Burridge.
When she suggested on Australian radio that the possessive apostrophe be dropped, she received a barrage of criticism.
"I could not have predicted the outcry," she says. "Public flogging would have been too light a punishment. That was the first time I realised people were so passionate about it."
Once after addressing an audience, a man told her how many times she had said "sort of" and concluded her use of it meant she didn't know what she was talking about.
Truss v Burridge: To hyphen or not
He represents the views of what she calls the "sticklers", who fiercely oppose her views on language.
"Rules are important, but they are not all good," she says. "People can get too worried about these things. The letters I got when I suggested dropping the possessive apostrophe were quite hostile."
The normal apostrophe is useful but not the possessive, she says. Its supporters say it avoids ambiguity in meaning, (like sisters' books / sister's books), but Burridge thinks context makes it redundant.
The hyphen is also surplus to requirements in many cases, she says, because even the editors of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary admitted they're not sure of its proper usage.
Burridge argues that dictionaries need to acknowledge new words and usages of grammar and punctuation to stay relevant. She is currently backing a campaign to get the "yeah-but-no-but" catchphrase of Little Britain character Vicky Pollard entered into the Collins English Dictionary.
Modern technology is leading the way in streamlining language. The use of words and punctuation in e-mails, texts and internet chatrooms is a type of speech written down and has loosened the straitjacket effect writing had on language, says Burridge.
But the distinction between speech and writing is something that should be kept, argue some.
"Punctuation is a way of showing respect to language," says linguist Tom Daydon.
"We have to learn the distinction between speech and writing because our audience is different with each. When we talk to people they can ask if they don't understand something but they can't if we write a letter to them, so rules are needed."
But the emphasis should be on clarity, rather than rules, argues Burridge and she is not alone. Roy Corden, professor of language and literacy at Nottingham Trent University, says rules often make things more confusing.
"Take the apostrophe, there is so much confusion over how to use it you have to wonder if it has become dysfunctional," he says.
"The fundamentals of grammar will always be needed but people tend to act as if all the rules have been handed down from on high and cannot be altered. The problem with that is language is always changing, the internet and mobile phones have had a dramatic impact on it.
"I think it comes down to a question of clarity, do the rules make language any clearer? If not we need to ask if they are still of use."
But not all change is good. Burridge is quick to criticise "evil weed" words, such as dishonest euphemisms that try to sound neutral when really they are negative, such as friendly fire and downsize.
Despite her approach, she does not think punctuation will die out because it provides the "props" of writing.
And as the success of Truss's bestseller shows for every person who wants the rules of language reviewed, there is another who feels passionately towards preserving them.
But Truss herself believes her campaign to retain the rules of the written word will fail.
"It's quite depressing to be standing up for a system of marks that's dying," she says. "There's no point doing it because it will die."
Punctuation clarifies complex sentences and without it, nuances would be lost, she says.
And the possessive apostrophe?
Despite the confusion among many, it's there to help and clarify, says Truss. Dropping it would be "capitulating to ignorance".
Add your comments to this story using the form below:
Failing to learn to write decent English is just laziness and quite heartbreaking to us who love reading and writing. Having said that, there's a good case for writing in a way appropriate to the means of communication, for example, texting. English can absorb it all. But formal writing is beautiful and enriching and I would consider it a loss if we ditched the rules just because people can't be bothered to learn them. Apostrophes? They're not a problem at all - the rules are quite clear and, for those who can read, they clarify writing no end.
The argument that text messages and the like are changing the language is a funny one. I am aware that languages change through useage over time, but the kind of changes being caused by text messages are not good ones. I often find messages written in this 'new style' English very difficult to understand and would rather people just wrote clearly. Gradual change is a good thing, but not sudden change like that. The possesive apostrophe helps clarify text and is very useful.
th Rgumnt tht txt msgs n th like r chngng th lng is a fny 1. i m awr tht lngugs chng thru usge ovR time, bt th knd f chngs Bing cosd by txt msgs R not gud 1s. i oftn fnd msgs ritn n ths nw styl Nglsh vry dfclt 2 undRstnd n wud rthr ppl jus rot clrly. grdl chng is a gud thng bt not sudn chng lk tht. th ' hlps clrfy txt n is vry usfl.
In Denmark, they do not use apostrophe at all and although its not exactly English but its still roman alphabets and similar. And apparently it works here, even though I am still trying to get the hang of it!
Huey-mien Tan, Denmark
Drop the possessive apostrophe? How would we know if it's The People's Republic of China or The Peoples' Republic of China?
Save the apostrophe! There's no excuse to get rid of vital parts of our grammar. Language evolves, that's very true, but it's supposed to expand not deteriorate. The apostrophe, the comma, they're not just for respect - they exist to make sense. Communication is so central to our current society, why would anyone want to jeopardise a form of clear understanding? Laziness, that's why.
Helen Thomas, University of Warwick, UK
Who is going to legislate the apostrophe or the hyphen into or out of the English language? Unlike French, there is no academy to guard the "purity" of the English language by regulating our vocabulary or glamour. Good thing too. Ours is a democratic language, owned by every person that speaks it. Change will come, and there are much more interesting things to happen than the loss of few punctuation marks. What will be the lingua franca for the 22nd Century English, Chinese, or perhaps a bit of both?
Alex Hirom, UK
Spanish is my first language and when I came to England I had to learn English - I was 13 years old. I believe that one of the problems is that people forget how the apostrophe is to be used, making sentences incorrect; we should stop being so lazy! Languages would be very difficult to learn if we did not have punctuation, so lets keep it.
Karen , England
I work in Technical Standards, where I can assure you that correct punctuation, including use of apostrophes, is paramount. Getting it wrong totally alters the interpretation and adds ambiguity.
Rules do make language clearer. Using the argument that many people don't understand or appreciate them is a classic dumbing-down, lowest common denominator approach. Don't use the lack of general literacy as an excuse to say that correct use of language wasn't important in the first place.
Perhaps the use of punctuation should depend to some extent on the formality or importance of the text in question. In contemporary Arabic, for instance, very little punctuation is used and many of the vowels are missing or ambiguous - you have to know what to insert or leave out, according to context. However, for important texts, particularly quotes from the Holy Koran, a much more elaborate system is used, so that no part of the original meaning is lost.
Drop the apho'strophe ? If we dunno the diffrence between a plural and a possessive, R capacity to impart meaning in written English is lessened. We might as well forget about litracy, and accept that the majority - the ignorant and the poorly educated - have 1. The hole point about knowing language rules is, that U no when to break them, and avoid sentences like this, innit ? English is, quite literally, at risk. Creative use of a living and evolving language still requires understanding of it's rules.Its actually quiet easy to find examples of there misuse.
Iain Connell, Uk
I do not agree with dropping the possessive apostrophe. We are pandering to the ignorant masses who can no longer spell or punctuate their own prose due to the advent of text speak. If you are intelligent enough to read a broadsheet, you are intelligent enough to know how to use an apostrophe. I do not want to see language dumbed down just because children can't be arsed anymore.
Simon Lloyd, England
What a fuss over nothing! It's hardly difficult to use the apostrophe correctly and it's certainly never done anyone any harm. I'm all for language keeping up with the times, but this is sheer laziness.
Helen Parkin, England
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.