Magazine article English Drama Media

Apostrophobia ... N. an Expaggerated or Irrational Dislike of Misplaced Apostrophes: Hyper-Punctuation? Keith Davidson Considers the Pro(')s and Con(')s of Writing's Little Helper

Magazine article English Drama Media

Apostrophobia ... N. an Expaggerated or Irrational Dislike of Misplaced Apostrophes: Hyper-Punctuation? Keith Davidson Considers the Pro(')s and Con(')s of Writing's Little Helper

Article excerpt

From time to time we get little fits of this sort of thing:


There have been few changes at Zippos, but though the excellent band is no more, I was strangely (because in the outside world it would drive me bonkers) heartened to see that much of the "Zippos Circus" signage remains untroubled by apostrophes, even incorrectly applied, though obviously only a deeply troubled saddo would come to a circus to tut-tut over crimes against punctuation ...

Kathryn Flett, The Observer (20 September 2009)

... the advert wasn't howlingly bad ... it was a more picky kind of mistake ... "There's so many to choose from" and the "s" after the apostrophe had been replaced by an "re" which is technically correct, the full sentence rightly being: "There are so many ...", not: "There is" and, actually, "there're is a pretty ugly construction. But, still, some ... had stood up on the tube, and sub-edited a wrong advert.

Pedants ... can go too far ...

But, by and large, it's surely immensely better, isn't it, to err on the side of getting things right rather than to miscommunicate, and boast your ignorance, and lazily confuse? And now, delightfully, graffitists with perfect grasps of syntax are getting in on the act. Things are looking up ...

Euan Ferguson, 'Man your apostrophes, my friends, and support the pedants' revolt', The Observer, (13 December 2009) [But note some inconsistent use of commas, found wanting or redundant.]

Cheerful weekend journalism, of course, trivial enough in context but in the journalistic line of 'The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation': Keith Waterhouse, Bill Bryson, John Humphrys, Lynne Truss ... as if these are the things that really matter.

'pedants' revolt'

Birmingham City Council is wet, cowardly, solecistic and philistine to abolish apostrophes on its street signs.

... Punctuation continually changes, like all language. But it should wait for a consensus. Unilateral destruction by a council, even one so eminent, is linguistic vandalism.

Philip Howard, The Times (30 January 2009)

Exasperated by living in a street where the language signage shows a cavalier disregard for punctuation, Stefan Gatward has been painting apostrophes on to the signs of "St Johns Close", in Tunbridge Wells [no less!], so that they announce "St John's Close".

... "The trouble is that some teachers don't know how to use grammar properly, so children don't either. Local authorities just don't bother," he said.

... "I fought for the preservation of our heritage and our language but some people seem happy to let that go. I'm not."

Chrys Smyth, The Times (18 August 2009)

Note the vituperative language, and your fault as ever! But what is this 'heritage'?

For instance, Goats' cheese tart--did the menu really need that apostrophe, and after the <-s> in any case? In principle just a noun phrase, comprising a compound noun in which the first element is itself an embedded compound noun: [goat(s)+cheese]+tart. So what has a possessive apostrophe got to do with it? No doubt prompted by the plural <-s> inflexion, it marks the item as a possessive pre-modifier of a following nominal component, perhaps a quite different compound: goats'+[cheese+tart] ('cheese tart for goats'!). If you must have an apostrophe here that would be to mark the intended pre-modifying compound, as singular since we're not talking about cheeses: *[goat(s)+cheese]+'s tart. But that's not what you'd say! But then, just to confuse things, there's sheep's milk kefalotiri ... in which, since sheep has no plural inflexion, the <-s> must be a genetive inflexion and marked according to the singular placing rule (as below). So perhaps it's goat's cheese manchego ..., after all, and cow's milk mozzarella in lieu of buffalo's[?] milk ... They're all marked thus as singluar throughout my cheese book, though, as count nouns, goat, cow and buffalo do take plural inflexions, and we're not talking about cheeses from the milk of single animals. Hyphens to the rescue: goats-cheese tart.

How did we manage to get into such a muddle? Lynne Truss explains all:

'The Tractable Apostrophe'

The English language first picked up the apsotrophe in the 16th century ... In classical texts it was used to mark dropped letters ... and when English printers adopted it, this was still its only function ... All we need to know is that, in Shakespeare's time, an apostrophe indicated omitted letters.

... If only the apostrophe's life had stayed that simple. At some point in in the 17th century, however, printers started to intrude an apostrophe before the "s" in singular possessive cases ("the girl's dress"), and from then on quite frankly the whole thing has spiralled into madness. In the 18th century, printers started to put it after plural possessives as well ("the girls' dresses").

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003, Profile Books)

(Note the rather fussy use of commas.)

   'in Shakespeare's time'

   Oph. O what a noble mind is heere overthrowne!
   The Courtiers, souldiers, schollers, eye, tongue, sword,
   Th'expectation, and Rose of the faire state,
   The glasse of fashion, and the mould of forme,
   Th'observ'd of all observers, quite downe

   Hamlet (Quarto, 1604/5), III.i

   O no, it is an ever fixed marke
   That lookes on tempests and is never shaken,
   It is the star to every wandring barke,
   Whose worths unknowne, although his highth be taken.
   Lov's not Times foole, though rosie lips and cheeks
   Within his bending sickles compasse come

   Sonnet 116 (1609)

She's done her homework and got the message: 'spiralled into madness'. So why, having sketched the wayward history of this capricious little diacritic, the 'possessive' apostrophe, can she then castigate 'sloppy, ignorant current usage' in 'the various important tasks the apostrophe is obliged to execute every day'--'important', 'obliged'?. And she's inconsistent, prescribing eight specific tasks for the apostrophe and trouncing defaulters, while conceding that 'Too many jobs have been heaped on this tiny mark', and recognising 'areas of apostrophe use that are not so simple ... murky tunnels of style, usage and (oh no!) acceptable exceptions', 'matters of style and preference that are definitely not set in stone, and it's a good idea not to get fixated about them':


... it is generally accepted that familiar contractions such as bus (omnibus), flu (influenza), phone (telephone), photo (photograph) and cello (violoncello) no longer require apologetic apostrophes ... ... Only one significant task has been lifted from the apostrophe's workload in recent years: it no longer has to appear in the plurals of abbreviations ("MPs") or plural dates ("1980s"). Until quite recently, it was customary to write "MP's" and "1980's" ...

Shaw, with relatively reticent reforming zeal, did delete apostrophes marking omission in negative contractions, if somewhat randomly elsewhere, but retained them in possessive constructions. Such are the two basic functions of the apostrophe as now prescribed for us:

* marking omission of letters to reflect contractions and elisions in speech

* diacritic marking of final genetive <-s> inflexions of nominal components (nouns and noun phrases)

The two functions are quite distinct. Contrary to linguistic myth the 'possessive' apostrophe has nothing to do with omitted letters; the old genetive <-es> had disappeared centuries before the apostrophe was called in aid, and the supposed contraction of [nominal]+his was merely fanciful. The apostrophe is not imposed on possessive pronouns:

his (= he+s), hers, its, ours, yours, theirs, whose (= who+s)

and corresponds to nothing in speech. It is simply an unrelated diacritic marking in the writing system and mysterious for learners. These notes look at the implications.

The apostrophes in MP's and 1980's were oddities in any case, unrelated to these two basic functions. Shouldn't the apostrophe have followed the <-s> in these plurals? No doubt, if marking a genitive <-s>, but in MP's in

the 1980's something else was going on: the <-s> is just a plural inflexion, the apostrophe simply serving to signal that. If now redundant in such cases (a non-starter in *pro's and con's), its functional role was just to mark the as a plural inflexion and not a possessive. Compare the singular/plural marking of the genitive <-s> in an MP's expenses(') claim and MPs' expenses.

And so the standard prescription for the number marking of possessive nominals:

* a genitive <-s> inflexion is added to a singular nominal and is marked off by a preceding apostrophe

* final <-s> doubling as both plural and genitive is marked by a following apostrophe.

Not the possessive feature itself, the apostrophe simply acts as a graphic gloss to the genitive <-s> to mark number. So far, so simple--easily taught, if easily forgotten--but that's only where the fun begins.

So, to amuse and bemuse:

* for the handful of surviving old <-en> plural inflexions the genitive <-s> is marked according the singular placing rule: men's, women's, children's, oxen's, vixen's

* non-count nouns ending in <-ics>, with singular agreement of the verb are marked--if at all?--as if plural: a linguistics' degrees, the athletics' track, his math(ematic)s' course (note the American math [??] math('s) course); but these are basically compound nouns, as above.

* names ending in <-s>:

--these are generally marked according to the singular placing rule, adding an extra syllable: Keats's poems, Dickens's novels--in my pronunciation at least

--in polysyllabic names the final lexical <-s> is more usually treated as also the genitive and so marked according to the plural rule, with no added syllable: Socrates'(s) sayings Aristophanes'(s) plays: but let pronunciation be your guide, if not determined by written practice in the first place

All this a field day for the automated assessment of writing now touted by Edexcel et al--bad enough when left to the whims of examiners, let alone Bill Gates! In the golden age of 'standards' this tiresome little tic(k) could cost you half a mark a time, with endless waste of time in examiners' meetings to achieve some measure of consistency. But that's one of its prime functions, one more stick for the self-appointed guardians of the language--pedants pedagogues, purists and pundits--to beat you with, not least journalists jealous of their own professional prestige.

What are the rest of us to make of all this rather arcane stuff? The grocers may have got it right after all, recognising the intrusive apostrophe as just a way of marking final <-s> variously when a grammatical inflexion of whatever kind. And so with the best of the rest of us, as spotted on the board outside a rather smart, newly refurbished Thameside restaurant bar: BOULTERS ... CREAM TEA'S. One of Lynne Truss's correspondents had been outraged by another such.

Her rather cross insistence on marking genitive expressions of time and quantity with apostrophes suggests that she really recognises this as already a lost cause. It's more readily retained in the singular, to reflect the added genetive /-s/ in speech, than when that's not added to the plural <-s>when there's no additional /-s/ is pronounced: A moment's thought would suggest that in twenty years(') time practice might well have changed. She acknowledges that the possessive forms of commercial names are a law unto themselves. In a quick local check of street signs I noted, as elsewhere, the apostophe more likely to survive in lower case than in caps in commercial names, but unpredictably, and caps without apostrophes is evidently standard in street names regardless of recent fusses. The diacritic French accents and German umlaut are regularly omitted with caps similarly.

ST JOHNS ROAD--for St. John's Church

BOXMOORS OFF LICENCE--causing a bit of a fuss, as more likely with a place name?

PARRYS (newsagent and store), ... GENTLEMANS HAIRDRESSER, WESTONS FISH BAR--all well established

CASTLES (estate agent)--but would that be singular or plural?

... SPORTS CENTRE--certainly plural

Annies Sandwich Bar (name now changed altogether!), Pearce's Pins (dressmaker)

The implications of all this are that the possessive apostrophe is in many ways a redundant marker. But, a note of caution before assuming that 'redundant' equals 'irrelevant'. Redundancy does have a significant communicative function, supplying supplementary cues in messages to the many missed in the immediacy of transmission. This recent opera announcement on radio was potentially ambiguous: 'the Scottish Thane and his wifes bloody thirst for power'. Had Verdi lost the plot? Weren't they both in it together? But of course we all knew, didn't we, and the announcer wasn't much bothered to make it clear. Context is all, but in writing you may need to be more explicit:

   either ... and his wife's ... (doing her own thing)
   or ... and his wifes' ... (they were both at it)

(Unless, by the basic placing rule, we're now into 'How many wif/ves had lordly Macbeth?'!) A rather contrived illustration:

   the Prices' rite of passage in booking on line
   the Prices' right to complain
   the Prices write to their solicitors
   the price's right for the agreed compensation

The italicised phrasings are virtually identical in speech. Once again our much maligned writing system makes all plain, with the apostrophe playing its part.

'... an ever fixed marke'? The apostrophe is absent in txtng and at risk in informal e-mailing at least, and evidently not greatly missed. It emerged in its present prescribed roles as a product of evolving custom and practice and must take its chances in that continuing process. 'Twas ever thus with the niceties of language.

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