Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Changes in language seem to just happen. Nobody sets out to introduce a change, but suddenly people are saying “groovy” or “my bad.” And then they’re not. Even written language changes, though the evolution is slower.

Last weekend, I saw this sign at a goat farm on Long Island.

WER’E ??

I used to care about the apostrophe, but after years of reading student papers about “different society’s,” I have long accepted that the tide is against me. The apostrophe today is where spelling was a few hundred years ago – you can pretty much make up your own rules.

Sometimes the rule is fairly clear: use an apostrophe in plurals when leaving it out makes the word look like a different word rather than a plural form of the original. Change the “y” in “society” to “ies” and it looks too different. “Of all the cafe’s, I like the one with lime martini’s.” The “correct” version is cafes and martinis. but I think they take a nanosecond or two longer to mentally process.

Or these

Technically, it should be “ON DVDS.” But DVDS looks like it’s some government agency (I gotta go down to the DVDS tomorrow) or maybe a disease.

It’s not always easy to figure out what rule or logic the writer is following. The little apostrophe seems to be plunked in almost at random. Not random, really. It’s usually before an “s.” But why does Old Navy say, “Nobody get’s hurt”?

There’s a prescriptivist Website,, that collects these (that’s where I found the DVDS and Old Navy pictures). They’re fighting a losing battle.

Technology matters – I guess that’s the sociological point here. The invention of print and then the widespread dissemination of identical texts herded us towards standardization. Printers became a separate professional group (not part of the church or state), and most of them were in the same place (London). They had a stranglehold on published spelling.

For the last few decades, anyone could be a printer. The page you are now reading might harbor countless errors in punctuation and spelling (though spell-checkers greatly reduce misspellings), but it looks just as good as an online article in the Times, and it’s published in a similar way to potentially as many readers. And now there’s texting. It’s already pushing upper case letters off the screen, and the apostrophe forecast doesn’t look so good either. But what will still be interesting is not the missing apostrophe but the apostrophe added where, by traditional rules, it doesn’t belong.

I still can’t figure out WER’E.