As you may or may not have noticed, I am one of those (un)fortunate individuals with an apostrophe in their name. Even though I know little to nothing of the origins of my surname, with the exception that there is much debate over the original old world spelling, I am completely devoted to the cause of preserving my apostrophe and others I come across. Of course, I am not simply talking about Irish surnames but the lowly apostrophe in all its lovely uses in our language.
Just today I gave my students a lesson in the use of apostrophes in English. This is a topic that does not receive near enough attention and English is simply dropping its apostrophes. I feel this would be a great loss. Before I go too deep into how important I feel the apostrophe is to our language, I’d like to give a little history about why I am so passionate about this little fella in my own name.
As mentioned above, the only thing I know for certain about the origins of my surname is that it has been the source of much confusion since the original O’Hearns (or whoever) came to Canada from Ireland. In my immediate family there are two variant spellings: O’Hearn and O’Hearon. I was born with the latter but went by the former since it is what everyone else in my family went with, regardless of what their birth certificates said. This was fine until it came time for me to begin my long relationship with government-issued ID documents. The first such was my driver’s license. Since O’Hearon was on my birth certificate, this is what the DMV insisted be on my license even though everything in my life up to that point had been O’Hearn. Hungry for the freedom a driver’s license would afford I acquiesced. Next was my passport: again, freedom was calling. Up to this point this was all just a minor annoyance at best since all my official documents were in a slightly different name than everything else in my life. It was only before I was about to get married that a real problem would arise in the O’Hearn/O’Hearon wars. My wife wanted to take my last name but we both agreed that O’Hearon just wasn’t the way to go. The people at the Office of Vital Statistics told me I had two options: 1) judging from my paternal grandfather’s wedding certificate, I could have my name ‘corrected’ based on the fact that he had signed it OHearn (without an apostrophe) free of charge, or 2) I could apply to have my name legally changed and keep the apostrophe for $500. I opted for the latter. I filed the necessary forms and paid the fees and, all of a sudden, I legally had the name I had been using my whole life. The apostrophe was the sticking point for me. I desired it, not because of any sort of fealty to my pseudo-Irish heritage, but because I respected the tradition of my native tongue embedded in that contraction, errant misspellings notwithstanding.
So, this is my personal reason for wishing to save the apostrophe. I fought (bought?) for it and I would do it again if I could afford it. When I tell this story I get a few different reactions. Usually people show something like gratitude that I believed in something as ephemeral as a dying punctuation mark, but often I get confused looks. Both reactions are equally valid, I feel. As I was teaching proper uses of apostrophes to my first year undergrads this morning, it dawned on me that most people really don’t care a toss about getting it right. I had a student argue one time that it doesn’t matter how one writes so long as what is written can be understood. Suppressing my natural rage, I calmly explained that that is true to an extent. Basic communication means that what you write should be understood, but our goal in a university is to be able to write and write well, not simply to express our thoughts in the written equivalent of, in my opinion, primitive grunts. I should say that I have no problem with people writing to be understood and misusing language or simply getting things wrong. What I have a problem with is doing so willfully with no intention or desire to improve because it would be too much effort. Perhaps it is my many years of post-secondary brainwashing, but if I put forth anything that I feel is less than perfect it is not because I know it to be so. I don’t think ti is too much to ask that others make a similar effort to be the best writers and communicators possible, especially in a university setting. I digress from my main point about the apostrophe, however.
So, the apostrophe’s two main uses, to show possession and as a contraction device, are fairly straightforward. I shan’t give a lesson here, but if you desire to see these things in practice I urge you to visit any of the good grammar websites out there, like the Purdue Online Writing Lab. This is the lesson I imparted to my students this morning and it made me realize how confusing this whole business might be to someone who has never been given similar explicit instruction and/or has learned English as an additional language. This describes, I would say, probably 98% or more of students. I think I might have been part of the tail end of a generation who had explicit grammar instruction in school and, even then, it was minimal and only from one older teacher. I became a crusader for grammar when I learned German in my undergrad from the ground up. I was taught German by the book, which meant that we learned all the intricate and finicky grammar. This had the effect of not only improving my English, but making me realize the importance of knowing how language works in order to use it effectively and accurately. I feel quite strongly that one must have a comprehensive knowledge of a language before it can be played with and manipulated properly.
I am certainly not the first person to lament the ever-increasing disappearance of apostrophes from English. Any Canadian of a certain vintage remembers when our most famous coffee shop was Tim Horton’s rather than Tim Hortons. There are also daily occurrences of the possessive “its” being written as “it’s” and vice versa. This is not news to those on the grammar frontlines. Public enemy number one in the apostrophe wars is definitely technology and the internet. I am talking, of course, about the dreaded txtspk, which is fodder for much head-scratching from popular media fearmongers and other hegemony-minded individuals, but not really because there have always been adaptations and codes in English usage. No, as I understand it, apostrophes are not a recognized part of program creation. That is why all my email accounts are justin.ohearn@somethingorother and not justin.o’hearn@somethingorother. The apostrophe is just not needed in electronic formats. In fact, I often have online fillable forms bounced back to me insisting there is some mistake. The mistake? I have spelled my surname correctly; if I take out the apostrophe, only then will I be allowed to pay my phone bill online or register for bootcamp at the gym.
It is at this point that I must admit my own bias if it is not apparent from the first part of this post: I expect a certain level of engagement and interest in improving one’s writing at the university level. I also expect that the general population wishes to write at the highest possible level. I know this is not the case much of the time and I am not really one of those people who trolls comments sections only to correct others’ grammar. Superciliousness is ineffective at best and downright rude at worst. No, I prefer to practice what I preach and I strive for the best possible writing in all my forms of text-based communication. It feels more and more like I am on the losing end of the battle for the apostrophe, however. I will continue to fight for its right to survive and thrive. As confusing as it may be, I feel it is an integral part of the way our language works and I, for one, would be sorely upset if it disappeared altogether.