'The barbarians have won,' said the man on the radio.
He was old, in his 90s I think, and he had the rich patrician vowels of a 1950s newsreader, and for 20 years or more he had been, bless him, president of a society whose exact name I didn't catch but which existed for a single crisply-defined purpose and that purpose was to save the apostrophe. I am not making this up.
What happened at the society's monthly meetings? Did they slip out in the darkness with paint and brush to transfer apostrophes from egg's for sale to St Peters Recreation Ground? Or did they just sit around in a circle frothing with indignation and bemoaning the state of the world?
I don't know and it doesn't matter any more because the reason the old boy was on the radio was that the society had been disbanded. They've given up. Maybe membership dwindled. Maybe they all got too old to care. Maybe they felt the tide of illiteracy was just too strong to beat back. Whatever the cause, they admitted defeat.
But the old boy was a long way from admitting error. He cherished the apostrophe still. He had nothing but contempt from those who got it wrong. They were, and I quote from memory, 'too ignorant to get it right and too lazy to learn.' Implicit in everything he said was a direct correlation between the correctly-used apostrophe and a human being's moral worth.
And he explained why the apostrophe mattered. It made meaning clear. Without it there would be puzzlement. For example he said, if a man declared he was going to collect his brothers books, how would one know without the apostrophe whether there was one brother or 10. Case closed.
Well now, first it is hard to imagine a circumstance where such a distinction would matter. Second, if it did matter the speaker would make the distinction clear by some means other than the apostrophe (I'm coming to collect brother Simon's books but not brother Peter's.)
Third, and clinchingly, if the man said he was going to collect the books then no one knew whether or not there was an apostrophe because an apostrophe is inaudible. It exists only on paper.
And there's the nub of it. The spoken language has always got by perfectly well without the apostrophe. If there is ever any confusion it is easily cleared up. And if the spoken language doesn't need the apostrophe, neither does the written. The apostrophe is a mere convention, like dressing for dinner, say, and one that is as doomed as the society that hoped to defend it.
I get no pleasure from saying so. I share the old boy's fondness for the apostrophe. But I recognise that I like it, not because it's useful, but because I know how to use it. Ha, I say when I see sausage's on the menu, and I pretend to be appalled. But I am not in the least appalled, and neither, if he looks deep into his soul, is the old boy.
Rather we are delighted because we feel superior. And that is the apostrophe's sole remaining use: to make those of us who know how to use it feel good about ourselves.
As I type I can hear the old boy spluttering. I can hear his society members protesting that one must not give in to the mob, that one must maintain standards, that one must fight for what is right and true and ancient.
But there is nothing right or true or ancient about the possessive apostrophe. When Shakespeare was scratching out wonders with his quill he knew nothing of the possessive apostrophe. It didn't exist.
In Shakespeare's day the apostrophe was used only to indicate a missing letter, as in haven't, or I'm. The possessive apostrophe arose only in the 18th century in a misguided attempt to create an English genitive case in imitation of Latin.
As I have said here before, language evolves in the same manner as species evolve. It is a blind and inexorable process that operates according to one simple law: what is useful survives; what isn't withers. The possessive apostrophe will wither.
It's had a good run but perhaps 50 years from now it will seem as archaic as the semi-colon. A 100 and it will be gone. And nothing will be lost. We who lament it will be lamenting nothing but our own mortality.