The Negative Canon: Apostrophe’s

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

As with spelling, a standardised system of punctuation  in English began only with the introduction of printing. For centuries before, English was written with little or no punctuation, and there has always been variability in its use. Whatever its original purpose, it exists now principally not, as some seem to think, to show where the reader should pause, but to help the reader understand the structure of sentences.

There is one punctuation mark above all which the tut-tutters love to point out when it is not placed in accordance with their wishes. It is, of course, the apostrophe, against whose usefulness Peter Harvey has already argued here and here. When James Harbeck’s article in The Week in September claimed that ‘The English language would be better off without apostrophes’, it gave rise to much comment on both sides of the argument, as Louise Barder reported on Glossophilia.

Printers imported the apostrophe from Europe in the sixteenth century as a mark to show that a letter had been omitted, perhaps because there wasn’t space on a line to fit everything in. It was subsequently used to replicate the way contractions were spoken. This is the use we find in don’t, isn’t and I’m (and in French in C’est, l’homme and n’est-ce pas?). Such use isn’t particularly troublesome. Where there is confusion and controversy is in its use in certain plurals and as a genitive marker.

When it is used before the plural inflection -s it is sometimes called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ because displays of fruit and vegetables are sometimes accompanied by signs inidcating apple’s and cabbage’s. The easily amused like to ask questions like ‘The apple’s what?’ The apostrophe is also found in the plurals of abbreviations (DVD’s) and years (1980’s). This use is arguably unnecessary where the -s appears in lower case. But even those who insist on its absence there acknowledge that it serves a purpose in (admittedly rare) cases like p’s and q’s.

It is, however, the absence of the apostrophe as a genitive marker that most upsets people. In Old English, some, but by no means all, nouns had their genitive singular in es. This became contracted to plain –s with no apostrophe, as in this couplet from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende

I don’t see that shire’s would have been any improvement, but seventeenth century scholars felt a need to indicate the lost letter, even where there was none, and the –’s marker was born.

On current practice, Pam Peters writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, :

As applications of the apostrophe begin to shrink, expert writers and editors are also less certain about its use, hence the many details of this entry. Burchfield [chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971 to 1986], quoted in a 1985 news article,  . . . commented that the apostrophe had probably reached the limits of its usefulness, and might only be retained for contractions. A return to C17 simplicities with the apostrophe might not be a backward step’

There are indications that this is already happening. Pam Peters sets out a number of cases where apostrophes are not now obligatory. They include:

  • plural nouns in phrases which express affiliation, for example, teachers college and senior citizens centre. The trend is widespread in the English-speaking world. Robert Burchfield noted it in corporate names and titles such as Diners Club and Farmers Weekly.
  • plural expressions of time and space, such as five weeks leave (but a week’s leave), and three kilometres distance (but a kilometre’s distance).
  • placenames involving possessive forms.
  • company names such as Harrods. A British book chain fairly recently changed its name to Waterstones.

As confirmation of this trend, I can report that a road near my house bears the sign Sprats Hatch Lane, that a sign in the village points to Doctors surgery, and that at least one branch of a leading British department store has in its restaurant a counter labelled CHILDRENS.

The possessive apostrophe won’t be preserved by the efforts of the likes of the Apostrophe Protection Society, and it won’t be abolished by people saying it should be. It will disappear, as it is already disappearing, when enough writers find that it serves no useful purpose. Its absence in URLs will doubtless have an effect. Those who object are entitled to do so, and they certainly make free use of that entitlement, but they should remember King Canute.


Filed under The Negative Canon

6 responses to “The Negative Canon: Apostrophe’s

  1. Oddly, apostrophe is specifically valid in URLs, though not often used, as are parentheses.


  2. That might be further evidence that it serves little purpose.


  3. “plural nouns in phrases which express affiliation, for example, teachers college and senior citizens centre.”

    This of course is only true with regular nouns. No one can say children school (or childrens school), or men center (mens center). And it’s girls basketball, boys basketball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball…


  4. Why shouldn’t you write ‘childrens’, ‘mens’ and ‘womens’? My example from the department store restaurant already shows an instance of the first of those.


  5. klokanek

    My understanding of the genitive ‘s–the contraction of a missing part of a word–is that it resulted from a false etymology for the genitive that was current in Early Modern English (this was a great time for mucking about with spellings). English users came to believe that the -s ending was a contraction of ‘his’:
    the man his wife –> the man’s wife, for instance.
    Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Son” provides proof of this:
    Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
    It should be “Ben Jonson’s best piece of poetry,” but here a rule has trumped native speaking instincts.

    I don’t know if this is where punctuating the genitive began its vexed history, but I think it’s likely. I truly don’t like the current American way of teaching students to punctuate a singular genitive that ends in -s (just add an apostrophe), as we very often add a syllable when we make these nouns possessive, and I think it’s counterintuitive to remove that syllable when writing, e.g., Elvis’ music versus Elvis’s music. I say and therefore write the latter.


  6. Pingback: A Word to the Wise | Let me tell U a story

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