There are few grammatical constructs that stir as much passion as the apostrophe. But language traditionalists will be saddened to hear that the punctuation mark could soon be a thing of the past.
There has been a noticeable decline in its use, according to the largest ever study of how spoken and written language has evolved over the past three decades.
Researchers from Lancaster University have amassed a database of 100 million words that they have used to analyse trends from the early Nineties to the present.
"The most striking thing you can see is how informal language has become," said Dr Vaclav Brezina who led the study. "There has been a systematic shift not only towards more informal vocabulary but also towards more informal grammar."
Dr Brezina, an expert in linguistics, said this was one of the more surprising findings, since normally grammar is more resistant to changes over time.
"There has been a very noticeable drop in the use of apostrophes," he said, explaining that this was a change that had been prompted by the increasing use of social media platforms, where they were often dropped for brevity and speed.
"We still maintain some editorial standards – newspapers and academic journals would have some processes to keep them in place and they are part of our perceived standards. We can see the emergence of dropping apostrophes on social media, but the question is how much more time will it take for this to extend to elsewhere?"
Academics used their corpus – which is the largest balanced and structured sample of the English language – to analyse how many times per million a particular word was used in the early Nineties compared to now.
They found that there has been an eight per cent decrease in the uses where the apostrophe is used after a plural noun – such as birds' beaks – from 308.47 uses per million in the Nineties to 282.88 uses per million in present day English.
Formal research reports today include almost twice as many informal expressions such as "it's" instead of "it is" than a research report in the early Nineties.
Dr Brezina told The Telegraph that modal verbs such as “shall”, “must” and “may” are declining "dramatically", adding: "This started in the first half of the twentieth century. We still use them now, but with significantly decreased frequency."
"Shall", "must" and "may" have decreased by 60 per cent, 40 per cent and 41 per cent respectively, while "whom" has decreased by 52 per cent, researchers found.
Mr and Mrs find themselves shunned
Another example of the trend towards more informal language was the decreasing use of formal terms of address such as Mr and Mrs, which have decreased by 35 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively.
"We might be more likely to use first names now in official letters or sources of communications," Dr Brezina said. "All these things tell a story not only about language but also our society."
Meanwhile, there has also been a "significant increase" in the use of the exclamation mark since the 1990s, the research showed. Although this did not break any grammatical rules, traditionalists may see it as an "overuse", Dr Brezina said.
There has also been a major increase in the use of formerly frowned upon linguistic features such as the split infinitive. English speakers are now three times more likely to use a phrase such as "to gradually bring" or "to effectively tell" both in speech and writing than they were in the early 1990s.
The database uses balanced samples of written and spoken language from a range of different samples including newspapers, magazines, television shows, works of fiction, social media, blog posts, academic journals and political speeches.
Dr Brezina explained that social media has had a big influence on the evolution of the English language, both in terms of grammar – such as the dropping of the apostrophe – but also in terms of words.
“Social media influences language more generally and the words that originate in social media get picked up in other registrars," he said. "You have a selection of words that are strikingly different when we compare the old and new datasets. These come from social media in particular, where the medium itself forces the language."
New words and expressions related to technology – such as vlog, fitbit and bitcoin – have come into existence, while shorthands such as "omg" (oh my god), "tbh" (to be honest) and "defo" (definitely) have come into common parlance.
The word "amazing" has increased in use five-fold from 16.6 times per million to 88.6 times per million, while the use of "maybe" has almost tripled from 89.3 to 236.1 parts per million.
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