John Richards is now the closest thing prescriptive English grammarians have to a holy martyr, and we will sing songs about him. To be clear, we will not sing song’s about him. And if I write a song about John Richards, it will be Jonny’s song about John Richards, not Jonnys song about John Richard’s. And if I write multiple songs about John Richards, they will be Jonny’s songs about John Richards, not Jonnys song’s about John Richards’.
At any rate, there’s a part of me that mourns this symbolic defeat to incorrect apostrophe usage. As a lover of literature and copywriter by trade, I’ve spent most of my personal and professional life meticulously learning grammatical rules.
But, as Bob Dylan memorably put it, the linear progression of time means that the status quo will inevitably evolve. The world seems to be saying it doesn’t care much for how one is supposed to use apostrophes, even if it makes me the one kid in school who spent loads of money on a minidisk player six months before the iPod came out.
This is not a new situation to be in. English is an ungainly, constantly evolving beast full of illogical, inconsistent conventions. Usage changes. Previously ironclad rules become obsolete. It’s the reason why “wicked” now means “good” and “literally” can now mean “not at all literally”. It’s why we haven’t used “Gōd hælo!” as a toast in England since the 11th Century. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that there has never been a time in history when anyone could agree on how to use apostrophes.
We’re also in an age of accelerated linguistic mutation because of how digital technology has impacted written communication. The mobile phone has had the same impact on the English language that the bubonic plague had on the English people. The rules are changing, and it’s a tide that cannot be stopped.
The impulse to preserve the apostrophe is the same one that drives those tedious self-styled “grammar Nazis”. They care less about grammatical clarity and more about slavish devotion to rules in order to feel smugly superior to others. They are the fanatical zealots of language and we should not want to be like them.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe using apostrophes correctly is important. I’m a copywriter, my job is about communicating meaning, and sometimes rogue apostrophes can confuse what you’re trying to say. As the classic grammar maxim goes, apostrophes are the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.
However, rather than resist the way that apostrophe use is clearly changing, perhaps a more productive approach is to embrace it and work with it. Know when to be strict about apostrophes – in formal contexts or when they’re crucial to making oneself understood – and know when to be more relaxed about it. It feel’s like thats what John Richard’s would want us to do.