First published in Modern English Teacher, 2003. Amended 2010 and again in 2012
Intelligent apostrophes and dumb apostrophes.
Note the errors are on BOTH signs at The Yellow Conservatory.
The same error appears in this sign in Poole High Street.
Lars is a name. Lar isn’t. Misplaced apostrophe, Brooklyn, New York
The apostrophe was first used in France in the 1520s, and first appears in an English manuscript in 1559. Its original use was to show a missing sound, and it was used mainly to show spoken English, as in a play script. From this we get the apostrophe in don’t, wouldn’t, I’d like, didn’t, he’s, who’s,that’s, I’m, they’re all indicating a missing sound, just as it does in the literary o’er for over (as in O’er the seas to Skye …). At some point in the 17th century, apostrophes were used to show possession: John’s book, Ann’s pen. John Ash in Grammatical Institutes (1785) believed that the apostrophe for possession ‘seems to have been introduced by mistake.’
Bill Bryson traces the history of the apostrophe in Made in America. He points out that Jefferson, in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, always wrote it’s for the possessive form of it. Bryson says:
‘In fact there was some logic to it. As a possessive form, the argument went, its required an apostrophe in precisely the same way as did words like children’s or men’s. Others contended, however, that in certain common words like ours and yours it was customary to dispense with the apostrophe, and that its belonged in this camp. By about 1815, the non-apostrophists had their way almost everywhere, but in 1776 it was a fine point.’
King Edward’s School, Bath (established 1552). The apostrophe is set in stone.
David Crystal has said that the it’s / its distinction was set in stone by printers at Oxford University Press in the 1830s.
Oxford University Press building
From a learner’s point of view, it’s is a logical error, which shows that a rule has been recognized. Similarly, small children pick up the past tense went early on. When they begin to apply logic to language, they start saying goed instead. Goed is an intelligent error which is eradicated by the experience of hearing other people saying went. Adding an apostrophe in possessive pronouns is logical too, and probably the words were derived from it’s, their’s, your’s, her’s and our’s, just as we would write Jack’s or Chloe’s in the same situation. Because possessive pronouns were common, custom took over and the apostrophe was dropped. In the case of it’s for possession, which is a more frequent error than our’s, there’s a motor problem. it’s meaning it is appears so frequently in English that people have it’s as an automatic sequence in their minds. They don’t think of the word as i + t+ ’ + s but as a block like a Chinese character. That’s how we read the most common words. They often recognize the error if they take the trouble to read through afterwards. Your and you’re are confused in rapid writing in the same way.
Annoyingly, I’ve noticed that when typing on my computer, the predictive text auto-correction much prefers it’s to its and only operates at a single word level, so three times recently I’ve typed its and ended up with it’s.
Language is in a permanent state of flux, and I notice that possessive pronouns as a class are being dropped by many people, which aggravates the problem. My kids used to say That’s my one not That’s mine when they were young. The thing is, nearly twenty years on, they and their friends still seem to prefer my one to mine and your one to yours. I noticed it while shopping the other day, where a couple in their twenties, both with ‘educated accents’ were arguing the merits of a bookcase in Homebase.
- It’s bigger than our one.
- Yes, but our one’s nicer wood.
That was what they said. Possessive pronouns can usually be replaced by a possessive adjective plus one or ones. It could be argued that possessive pronouns are near redundant in conversation. If someone said, Which is your plate? then That’s my plate is just as quick as That’s mine and as a bonus it removes a degree of ambiguity. My one doesn’t remove the ambiguity, and sounds somewhat childish to my ear, but to a child the sound difference between my one and mine is tiny. That’s where the problem begins. My son used to think it was car part not car park until he was about seven. On questioning, he’d worked it out. It was the part where you put the cars, a logical error.
Against that is the sudden popularity of the expression in the 21st century All back to mine (everyone is invited to my place). This may well survive as a fixed formula, just as To whom it may concern survives as a fixed formula.
In ELT, possessive pronouns have slipped further down the grammar area of the syllabus in the last 20 years. The two late 70s guides to syllabus design were the contrasting English Grammatical Structure (Alexander, Close, O’Neill, Stannard Allan) and The Threshold Level. Both include at least mine and yours in the earliest stages. In Streamline English they appeared in level one, then later books relegated them to level two or level three, and I’d place them there nowadays. The point is that you can cover any given situation by substituting possessive adjective (or possessive determiner if you prefer) + noun / one. I suspect that recent textbooks are reflecting changing usage over the period.
Harry Ramsden’s, Bournemouth Seafront
The writer Keith Waterhouse complained in his newspaper columns for years about the misuse of apostrophes, and coined the wonderful phrase greengrocer’s apostrophe’s to describe the errors so often seen on signs in Britain: banana’s £1.50, apple’s £2.20 and so on, where the plural and possessive are confused He talked of The Society for The Abolition of Aberrant Apostrophe’s (sic). There’s a 1970s record called Half The Day Gone and We Haven’t Earne’d A Penny which might be the weirdest one I’ve seen. The large sign for the “Worlds Most Famous Fish and Chips” adds the question of missing apostrophes.
The missing apostrophe might be called The Hairdressers No’postrophe. A look round a dozen hairdressers in Dorset found not an apostrophe among them. Fine, few barbers or hairdressers are one person businesses so a plural description is usually correct, even if my local Barbers Shop has just the one barber.
I don’t think you can argue Gentlemans. The plural is Gentlemen. Not that this prevented the next hairdresser from doubling the plural to Gentlemens Hairdressing.
Warwicks Original Fish & Chips suggests that there are several Warwicks.
In recent years Waterhouse added observations on signs with CD’s and 1000’s and ice’d. I’m not sure that CD’s is so daft either. What the writer is doing is adding an apostrophe between the abbreviation in letters and the possessive s at the end. The writer doesn’t want the s to be read as part of the abbreviation. In type the distinction is clear CDs. In handwriting the distinction often isn’t clear, CDs or CDS? 1000’s is more dubious, and is an abbreviated form, but I suspect a similar strategy is operating. The writer wants to show where the numbers stop and the letters start. As Britain’s largest retailer, Tesco, uses CD’s and DVD’s it’s a waste of time battling the use as “error.”
Sign: Rave From The Grave, Frome
CD’s and DVD’s outside a Tesco, UK’s largest supermarket chain
Another common error is in negative contracted forms. People put the apostrophe between the contracted words when it should replace the missing letter o in not, hence:
did’nt instead of didn’t
have’nt instead of haven’t
A rule has been guessed, which is use the apostrophe to separate words, but it’s the wrong rule.
These are from the “Teabonics” website which has a host of signs at US “Tea Party” demonstrations against free health care. The funniest sign (with no relevance to apostrophes) is “Respect Are Country. Speak English.”
In January 2012, the apostrophe hit the national news when the bookshop chain Waterstone’s decided to change its name to Waterstones. The argument was that internet search engines are too dumb to cope with apostrophes and fail to find Waterstone’s. I just tried it and it’s patently untrue. Google went straight to waterstones.com (which has no apostrophe). The chain was founded by Tim Waterstone, hence the possessive: Waterstone’s. Comments on the change included:
Seeing as Waterstone’s thinks the public is too stupid to manage apostrophes, maybe it’s time they just stopped selling books.
Waterstone’s is now officially called Waterstones. You sell BOOKS, idiots. As in language and proper grammar and all that stuff. Remember?! (somewhat undermining their pedagogy with a question mark followed by an exclamation mark).
It was pointed out that Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s cope with an apostrophe. So do Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip restaurants, even if they miss out the apostrophe in The Worlds Most Famous Fish and Chips … above. The contrary view is that Tim Waterstone long ago left the Waterstone’s company, and that as it’s now a brand name, there is a good argument for dropping the apostrophe, as so many other retailers have. Boots was founded by John Boot. William Debenham was an 1813 partner in Debenhams which became Debenham & Freebody before becoming plain Debenhams. Charles Henry Harrod founded Harrods. Electrical retailers Currys and Dixons were not named after the founders, but Curry and Dixon are surnames. Currys and Dixons are not. Wm Morrison supermarkets, founded by William Morrison, trade as Morrisons now, but used to be called Morrison’s. One of the founders of Lloyds Bank was Sampson Lloyd, and the bank never had an apostrophe in its name. But Lloyd’s of London, the shipping insurers, always has had an apostrophe (and is an unrelated organisation).
Barclays Bank was originally Barclay, Bevan & Co, named after James Barclay, then Barclay & Company. They were commonly known as Barclay’s but when they changed their name to Barclays Bank Limited in 1917, no apostrophe was used in the company register … but brass signs survive with a tiny apostrophe. Sign makers knew their punctuation then. Coutts Bank is a different case. The gentleman who founded the Queen’s bank was a Mr Coutts.
Thorntons chocolate shops has a degree of logic … it was founded by two brothers called Thornton, so the plural Thorntons was the same as the many singular names like Wm Morrison or W.H. Smith … a simple name, not a possessive.
In conversation, many people add a possessive to singular shop names. The business names are Tesco, ASDA, Marks & Spencer, W.H. Smith but people say I’m going to Tesco’s or I bought this at Marks & Spencer’s or They’ve stopped selling CDs at Smith’s and even It’s cheaper at ASDA’s. W.H. Smith in particular is nearly always called Smith’s.
The international chain restaurant, T.G.I. Friday’s is careful to use the apostrophe. According to the chain, the name stands for Thank Goodness It’s Friday which I’d only ever heard as Thank God it’s Friday. Having chosen the brand name, they put an apostrophe as in T.G.I.Friday (name of chain)‘s local restaurant.
Place names are a minefield. The city of Birmingham hit the headlines in 2009 when it decided to eradicate the possessive ‘s’ from all signs in the city, so St Paul’s Square became St Pauls Square. Apostrophe supporters started painting apostrophes back on signs at night.
Google maps have both spellings in close proximity. The London Underground is strict: Earl’s Court, Queen’s Park, Regent’s Park, Shepherd’s Bush, St John’s Wood, St Paul’s, St James’s Park, but then has Barons Court, the next station to Earl’s Court. In this case the man who owned the area lived on an estate in Ireland called Baronscourt, from which it derives. To keep you confused Earl’s Court is the tube station for the Earls Court (no apostrophe) exhibition centre. The London Transport sign shows Earl’s Court. The 19th century ceramic sign above the entrance has Earls Court. As with King’s / Kings Cross it appears that London Transport is more grammatically motivated than it used to be. Who said standards have declined?
Many towns have a King’s Road, and many have a Kings Road, not because of multiple kings either … that would Kings’ Road. We have town names: King’s Lynn in Norfolk, but Kings Langley in Hertfordshire. Bishop’s Stortford is also in Hertfordshire. Bishops Lydeard is in Somerset. Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire was named after the Gerrard family, but has no apostrophe. So Apostrophes are not consistent in British place names.
Only one queen, and only one head
Queens’ College in Cambridge correctly puts the apostrophe after the s, because it was founded by two queens, Margaret of Anjou (wife of Henry VI) and Elizabeth (wife of Edward IV), both of whom feature in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The college website notes:
The use of the apostrophe in English to indicate the possessive is of no great antiquity. The earliest examples of the name of the College spelt with an apostrophe always have the apostrophe before the “s”. The first example of the name of the College spelt with an apostrophe after the “s” was in 1823, in a printed and bound version of the form of service for the Commemoration of Benefactors, probably edited by G.C. Gorham. The spelling changed from Queen’s to Queens’ in the calendar of 1831.
The formal corporate title of the College is now: The Queen’s College of St Margaret and St Bernard, commonly called Queens’ College, in the University of Cambridge.
which shows both forms of spelling. This is formally correct. The name of the college when qualified by the patron saints is spelt in the singular; the short-form name is spelt in the plural.
I’m not sure I follow the last point. I can’t see how qualification by the names of the saints alters things.
In 1890, the US Board of Geographic Names made the decision to discourage the genitive apostrophe in place names. (This does not apply to university and college names). Names have to be officially accepted, and only five US place names have been allowed an apostrophe, Martha’s Vineyard being the best-known. Clark’s Mountain in Oregon (accepted 2002) is the most recent.
Henry Hudson – cast away by his mutinous crew in 1610. The man deserves an apostrophe.
Canada also has a Geographic Board and ruled in 1898 that wherever possible possessives in place names should be avoided. In 1900 it decided that Hudson’s Bay should in future be Hudson Bay, dropping the apostrophe and the ‘s’. I still think of it as Hudson’s Bay because a picture of Henry Hudson and son freezing to death adorned my classroom wall at school. The Hudson’s Bay Company grew from outposts buying furs from trappers into a large organisation based around department stores. They’re still called the Hudson’s Bay Company, though the logo on the stores is now The Bay.
The Canadian Board became so zealous that they dropped the ‘s’ even in place names without apostrophes. So Woods Lake in Ontario became Wood Lake even though it was named after a Mr Woods. Lion’s Head was changed to Lionhead in 1913, but as everyone who lived there ignored the change, they were forced to restore the original name in 1940. St John’s in Newfoundland has an apostrophe, as does St Peter’s in Nova Scotia . But St Catherines in Ontario has none.
Australia decided to drop the ‘s’ in place names in 2001.
In all cases of place names containing an element that has historically been written with a final – ‘s or -s’, the apostrophe is to be deleted, e.g. Howes Valley, Rushcutters Bay, Ladys Pass. This is to facilitate the consistent matching and retrieval of placenames in database systems such as those used by the emergency services.
(Committee for Geographical Names in Australia, 2001)
Keith Waterhouse’s greengrocers’ apostrophe banana’s is dumb. The wrong rule has been internalized, that if there’s an s at the end of a word it often seems to have an apostrophe in front of it. The writer hasn’t tried to work out why this should be so. Ice’d and earne’d are totally dumb, and I can’t think of any explanation for it, unless it’s that apostrophes are often seen in front of the contracted would and had: I’d …. . Therefore the writer has decided that apostrophes precede d at the end of a word. Interestingly, the last group of dumb apostrophes are far rarer among foreigners learning English than among native speaker’s speakers’ speakers.