You Say St James', I Say St James's. We Are in a Muddle over Apostrophe S

By Lister, David | The Independent (London, England), September 1, 1996 | Go to article overview
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You Say St James', I Say St James's. We Are in a Muddle over Apostrophe S


Lister, David, The Independent (London, England)


The novelist, playwright, journalist and self-appointed custodian of the English language, Keith Waterhouse, claims to have in his back garden an apostrophe incinerator.

"It is kept continually on the go," says Mr Waterhouse, who has also appointed himself Life President of the Association of the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

This weekend, flames will be leaping from the incinerator at such a lick you might think it's Guy Fawkes' night, or you might think it's Guy Fawkes's night, or if you really want to give Mr Waterhouse apoplexy, you might think "its Guy Fawkes night". The latest change in attitudes to the apostrophe, adding a disturbing footnote to literary history, comes from two of the most famous publishing houses, which appear to be discarding the final s after the s apostrophe with names ending in an s. In other words, in Lady Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot, it is Fawkes' plot and not Fawkes's, while a new biography of Erskine Childers similarly discards the possessive s. A call to John Murray, publishers of the book on Childers, reveals that the publishing house's apostrophe obsessive is John Murray himself. "I'm fascinated by apostrophes," he declares. "I'm driven to total distraction by people who put 60's, which means of the year of 60, not of the decade. Suddenly everybody is misusing the apostrophe." However, in the interest of reader friendliness, rigid rules can slip, it seems. "We have our stylebook, but we break the rules sometimes," Mr Murray admits. "A lot of it is a matter of appearance. You don't want to be too pedantic and hold the reader up because something looks odd. St James's looks right {Prince Charles', no Prince Charles's, letterhead retains the usage of St James's} but Childers's one thought looked odd. We set a high standard, but if things hold the reader up, we are prepared to change." At Weidenfeld & Nicolson, publishers of The Gunpowder Plot, the book's editor, Rebecca Wilson, rejects the notion of there being any firm ruling any more. "I don't think there is a correct way. Either works as long as you're consistent. I think I prefer it without the extra s. I think the extra s is slightly clumsy. It's inelegant. And Antonia Fraser wrote it without the extra s after Fawkes'." The apostrophe became associated with possessives for historical reasons. A few hundred years ago, the possessive of pigs was pigges, pronounced with two syllables. When the e ceased to be pronounced, an apostrophe was inserted, and the use was later extended to plural possessives. But words, often names, that end in s have tended to cause problems. The convention has been simply to add an s, as in St James's, though there have been traditional exceptions such as Jesus' mother. But agreement over matters pertaining to the apostrophe has been hard to achieve. The Oxford Guide to English Usage is firm that nouns ending in s add 's for the single possessive, including names such as Thomas's; but this is clearly disputed by a famous London hospital which, contrary to the pronunciation used by all of London, has irritatingly erected a large sign where it describes itself as St Thomas'.

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