Do they matter?
Yes and no. Are they often used incorrectly? All the time. A misplaced apostrophe won’t typically affect meaning, but it will affect correctness.
1920s vs. 1920’s
I was recently watching one of my favourite shows which is set in Australia in the 1920s. Note that there is no apostrophe on the date 1920s.
Many people write it as 1920’s and that is only correct if what you want to indicate is something belonging to the year 1920, as in 1920’s batch of ice wine was delicious, rather than I love the fashion from the 1920s, which refers to the years that comprise the decade, 1920-1929.
Its vs. It’s
In this show, there was a scene where people were protesting and they had common apostrophe errors on the signs.
They had used the contraction it’s (meaning it is) to indicate the possessive its. I see these kinds of errors all the time.
Was it intended to indicate that the people writing the signs did not know their punctuation? Perhaps. But there were several signs that had these errors within and it did make me wonder.
It’s high time we consider whether the apostrophe is lost on its users.
TVs vs. TV’s
According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), we do not use apostrophes for the plurals of an abbreviation (or, as stated above, numbers).
Many people have at least two TVs in their home, but my TV’s screen is quite scratched from my daughter using it as a racetrack for some of her little toy cars.
Apostrophe Errors at Large
I have seen errors like this on menus, on signage for businesses and on promotional material.
Many moons ago I was working for the Ontario provincial government and an employee had created and then commissioned signage with an apostrophe error that I pointed out to him.
I don’t speak French at all fluently and I would not be able to write anything beyond the most basic of sentences, such as C’est la vie.
But the apostrophe error that the mid-level employee had made was in C’est. He wrote it without one, as in Cest.
This also escaped the watchful eye of the in-house graphic designer.
Was this something that created a huge rift in the organization? Did the employee lose his job? No.
However, it did show a certain lack of attention to detail that ended up in wasting resources and time. They could not display these banners with such an error. It would make them look unprofessional.
So the whole thing had to be ordered again, this time with the correction, and of course, it did not meet the intended deadline.
Not everyone catches these kinds of errors and they end up in permanent signage on storefronts, ones that can’t be easily changed considering the expense.
Possessing the Apostrophe Knowledge
As both a professional writer and someone who teaches writing for a living, I do notice these errors often and they will cause me to lose a certain element of faith in the person or organization that does them.
Still, many people, including myself, make errors when writing quickly and not proofreading the material.
Another thing that happens is what I call “screen blindness.” Often writers miss errors when reading on a screen, but when they read the work in print, they can see it more readily.
Of course, knowing how to use apostrophes is not the be all and end all of good writing. Logic, flow and creativity are huge components as well. But fine tuning the mechanics will make sure that the big ideas are unencumbered and can shine as they were meant to.
Whatever the case, it is good practice to become aware of the kinds of errors that you make and then begin to learn how to proofread your work to see if you’ve made them. Once you possess this knowledge, your writing will only get better.