The Great Apostrophe Debate

The first English conundrum I faced (right after “Hmm, does working at the English Language Institute of Singapore mean that all my conversations have to sound like responses to an oral exam?”) when I started work at ELIS three weeks ago was the apostrophe.

Should it be ELIS’ website or ELIS’S website?

I stared at the apostrophe for a while, retyped it in both ways a few times, then decided on ‘ELIS’ website’, simply because I remembered teaching my former students that while both forms could be used, most people tended to drop the 2nd ‘s’ because it looked neater. I did want to adhere to what people at ELIS usually did though, so I looked at other documents, sought some advice and found out that the general practice here was to add the second ‘s’ after the apostrophe. That was really fine by me, so I added the extra ‘s’ on and went on with my work.

The apostrophe was pushed to the back of my mind until last week, when I read a news report about the huge grammar debate that erupted over the decision by Waterstone’s, a bookstore chain, to drop the apostrophe in its name.

The company cited ‘digital reasons’ for doing so, saying that it was a more versatile and practical spelling without the apostrophe. This understandably attracted many detractors. The most amusing one (to me, at least) was from a society called The Apostrophe Protection Society, which according to its website, has set itself the high task of ‘preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language’. (Read the whole article at

In the days that followed, more people have come forward with their views, ranging from the BBC ( to the celebrated grammarian, David Crystal ( One would probably expect nothing less than rousing debate and a proud defence of the English language from a country that introduced it to the world.

As the debate carries on, the question on most teachers’ minds is probably how we should teach our students now. Well, Crystal had us in his mind even as he blogged about the shifts in punctuation over time:

“It’s been an awkward time for teachers, who have the task of pointing out to their inernet-savvy students that this is a transitional moment. The old order still rules, and has to be respected. Omitting an apostrophe may not cause a problem in a text message, but it can cause a huge problem in essays, job applications, and other kinds of formal writing. Not because it makes meaning unclear, but simply because it goes against what society considers to be acceptable English. Students have to be taught how to manage this situation, so that they know what’s expected of them.”


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