Word Play July/August 2014

Punctuated Equilibrium

Will autocorrect save the apostrophe, and slow language’s evolution?
Nishant Choksi

A battle is being waged over the apostrophe, and the names of two of the online factions—the Apostrophe Protection Society and Kill the Apostrophe—suggest an extremism usually reserved for blood, rather than ink or pixels. The former, founded by a retired British copy editor, provides a gentle guide to deploying the apostrophe. “It is indeed a threatened species!” the site warns, a little preciously. The Web site Kill the Apostrophe, meanwhile, argues that the mark “serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.”

But if apostrophes are threatened, it’s not just because people don’t know how to use them. Smartphone keyboards can make them cumbersome to insert. As Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, notes, adding an apostrophe to a text message usually means toggling from the main keyboard to one that displays punctuation. “It is inconvenient in terms of interrupting the flow of writing,” he says.

It’s also possible that the apostrophe may not have much place among the writing conventions we’re improvising to fit our clipped digital communications. “Texting is actually kind of like another language teens have developed,” says Scott Campbell, a telecommunications professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s more about being expressive than lazy.” Deliberately dropping punctuation lets people modulate their tone in texts and other informal communications, making it more conversational. Consider that a period is all that separates the neutral See you later from the curt See you later.

The apostrophe isn’t dead yet, however. Autocorrect, the now-ubiquitous software that’s always reading over our shoulders, tends to put apostrophes in when we omit them—which means they might remain a feature of informal writing for longer than they otherwise would. The software may also prop up other formal conventions, among them capitalization and “silent” letters (like the u, g, and h that drop out as though becomes tho). “Autocorrect is acting like a language preservative,” says Alexander Bergs, a linguistics professor at Germany’s Osnabrück University. “Which is funny, as usually new media like cellphones and computers are blamed for language decay.”

Still, when it comes to autocorrect, spell-check, and their ilk, those who would blame digital technology for language decay are not entirely wrong. Our brains seem to become less vigilant when we know a grammatical safety net will catch us. A 2005 study found that students who got a high score on the verbal section of either the SAT or the Gmat missed twice as many errors proofreading a letter in Microsoft Word with the program’s squiggly colored lines highlighting likely mistakes as they did when the spell-check software was turned off.

In other words, even as software protects apostrophes, it could make us ever more oblivious to them—a contradiction that somehow might manage to upset not only Kill the Apostrophe partisans but members of the Apostrophe Protection Society, too. Meanwhile, as the battle rages on, our devices seem likely to nudge us even further in the direction of language preservation. The software company Nuance, which invented the predictive-texting technology known as T9, is developing autocorrect software capable of suggesting more-substantive grammatical changes, like proper verb conjugation. Which means that we could soon be texting like the grammarians our software wants us to be.

Presented by

Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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