’twould be nice to be
above an s …
… and, with that quote from Mr. Roger McGough’s short poem Apostrophe as a playful epigraph, it’s time to meet one of the most overrated marks in the punctuation biz.
Actually, no, scratch that; having started with a poetic flourish it may be a good idea to dismiss the poetic ‘apostrophe’ before getting into it with the practicalities. So, here’s an apostrophe I made earlier:
Oh, apostrophe, wouldst I couldst understand thee!
When the rhetorically inclined address absent, no longer with us or, quite often, purely metaphysical or abstract personifications, their exclamatory passages are known as ‘apostrophes’. It’s a figure of speech first recorded by name in 1533. & a mere couple of centuries later the verb ‘apostrophize’ appears (yes, sorry, spelt with a ‘z’).
‘Apostrophe’ as a name for a punctuation mark goes way back too. You can see a couple of early apostrophes in the title of William Shakespeare’s 1598 comedy smash, Love’s Labour’s Lost. In fact, in Act Four, Scene Two of that play, Shakespeare gives the apostrophe a mention when he has the pedant schoolmaster Holofernes say: You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.
Oh, yes, apostrophe, you have made your mark in history.
& all that is ancient history to some. Why, even Roger McGough’s Apostrophe goes way back, way way back, all the way back to back in the day. Nineteen seventy-six, to be as exact as you can be when dealing with poets; three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century. Alas, now those who were snotty proto-punks back in that day have had quite enough time to conform into fully-fledged apostrophe pedants. So, the apostrophe: you’d – you would think then that it’s – it has been around quite long enough for us to understand what it’s – that is, it is for, wouldn’t – would not you?
Constructing that ridiculous last sentence, I so wanted to write, ‘it (the apostrophe) has been…’ but that required ‘it (the apostrophe)’s –’ to be written first and, despite my liberal approach to language principles, I still couldn’t bring myself to make an apostrophe contain the bracketed words. It would have been grammatically correct, probably, but way beyond my expectations of its use.
In practice, the Shakespeare title Love’s Labour’s Lost goes a long way towards demonstrating exactly what’s expected of apostrophes today: either possession or omission, as required. Try rearranging Love’s Labour’s Lost to make sense in a non-apostrophe scenario and see what you get: ‘Labour of Love is Lost’, possibly ‘A Labour of Love is Lost’ or ‘The Labour of Love is Lost’. The article makes no real difference: definite, indefinite or non-existent – ‘labour’ belongs to the ‘love’ and ‘is’, together with the space that precedes it, gets reduced to ’s.
OK, alright, the apostrophe can get confusing, so here’s a fine selection of examples to show how it might work for you.
Guilty of Possession
’s sits after singular nouns (and, if you are being pedantic, indefinite pronouns):
- an apostrophe’s position
- a politician’s promise
- a Member of Parliament’s considered opinion
- Joe’s and/or Josephine’s point/s of view
- Joe & Josephine Public’s* way of thinking
- everyone’s† right
* ‘Joe & Josephine Public’ are no longer individuals. They are living happily ever after as a syntax-efficient pairing.
† ‘everyone’, according to grammarians everywhere, is a singular indefinite pronoun .
’s sits after a plural noun that doesn’t end in an ‘s’:
- people’s problems
- women’s rights
- men’s bits
- children’s education
- alumnae’s debts
- the public’s health
- the data’s statistics
’ is all that is required after plural nouns ending in ‘s’:
- politicians’ promises
- MPs’ expenses (*Members of Parliament’s expenses, that is)
- hard-working families’ tax-liability
- several years’ build-up
- old wives’ tale
* Use your common sense when applying apostrophes to compound and linked nouns.
If a singular noun ends in an ‘s’ then the logical extra ‘s’ is probably unnecessary but may not always be undesirable:
- Wales’ rôle
- the United States’ perspective
- our species’ responsibility
- James’*† liability
- a deck of cards’ value
* James (and some others like Charles) can prove exceptions to the unnecessary ‘s’ rule: James’ liability or James’s liability? There are a number of King James’s and St. James’s churches and schools knocking about; St. James’s Square in Westminster; Newcastle United FC play at St. James’ Park, which is near St. James metro station; St. James’s Park, with its extra ‘s’, is in London; and so on.
† The James in question could be King James, St. James, Sid James, Jameses Corden or McAvoy, or James Tiberius Kirk: the rule, such as it is, holds true.
Easy-peasy, eh? Because it can get a little complicated.
There’s all kinds of squiggly little wrinkles. For instance, if you want to write of something belonging to an italicised name, like McGough’s Apostrophe above, it is de rigueur to use a roman (upright) type for the ’s. So, fortuitously, Apostrophe’s lighthearted poetics may also usefully serve the meta verse.
Place names, from Land’s End to St. Albans, may or not contain apostrophes, but that geography is unpredictable. Nor is it consistent. You can travel on the London Underground from Earl’s Court to King’s Cross – go east on the Piccadilly line; if you head west, the next stop from apostrophe’d Earl’s Court is the apostrophe-free Barons Court. Or catch a number 10 bus from an unencumbered Earls Court Road.
Training northwards (from King’s Cross’s platform 9¾ perhaps), the university city of Cambridge wherein scholars walk along Scholars’ Walk is a timetabled hour away, more or less.
Cambridge is home to Queens’ College and King’s College. In 2014 Cambridge City Council, apparently following the lead of others and ‘national guidelines’, decided to remove apostrophes from all new street signs. In the face of pedantic protest and grafitti’d corrections, the council reversed its decision. On the other hand, Birmingham, in the West Midlands, dumped place name apostrophes in ’09 and as far as I know the vanished are still banished (although that tale may be apostrophal). In the same year in Kent, an unlikely pedant-turned-graffitist was dubbed the ‘Apostrophe Man of Royal Tunbridge Wells’. He enjoyed his 15-Warholian-minutes for adding a missing apostrophe to the official street signs for St Johns Close. The abbreviated saint remained without a point apparently.
UPDATE – Monday 3rd April 2017: BBC Radio 4, that ever-ready bastion of standards, and care home for celebrated eccentrics, broadcast The ‘Apostrophiser’ – described on the BBC iPlayer site as “One mans’ (sorry, man’s) secret battle against sloppy punctuation on Bristol’s shop signs.” Oh dear. Move over Banksy, Bristol has a new graffiti hero (unless this is Banksy’s art-prank revenge on pedants). The programme intercut a short history of the troublesome and inconsistent apostrophe with a gently mocking portrait of ‘a grammar vigilante’ whose myopic superpower as a ‘wrong-righter/writer’ has him prowling the nighttime streets of Bristol, carrying arcane home-made kit designed for the unasked-for correction of aberrant apostrophe use. We must obey the grammar rules, it seems, yet, when the reporter suggests that committing criminal damage in the name of punctuation is not normal behaviour for a grown man the reply is, “I don’t see why everyone else should conform…” In a related item, BBC Radio Wales put out a man-in-the-Swansea-street vox pop. One lamenting voice offered these wise words: “It’s so frustrating when you hear, even on the television sometimes, people mispronounciating words, you know….” I know what he means. And he’s right.
Company names are worth a brief look. Just a couple of examples: 1. Selfridges, founded in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co, would properly be ‘Selfridge’s’ – but it’s not. Mr. Selfridge, as seen on TV, was an American retailer. 2. The book chain Waterstone’s was founded by the British businessman, author and by philanthropist Tim Waterstone in 1982 and, in 2010, rebranded by subsequent owners as Waterstones.
Here’s one from the music business: Stereo MC’s, a group formed in London in 1985, still making electric dance music more than thirty years on, are often grammatically corrected and incorrectly written ‘Stereo MCs’.
In these examples and many more, the creators of the names (bands or brands) obviously display more interest in aesthetic appearance and/or marketing credibility than any adherence to old-fashioned coherence. The choice is theirs but there’s no lingo-logic to it other than, lately, a commercial hunger to be more easily found on the Internet wherein the apostrophe may be invisible to search engines. Certainly their enterprises are no better, nor worse, for a lack of conventional punctuation.
If you think it matters, you can still find plenty of retail opportunities crested with an apostrophe. If you like your burgers served with an apostrophe (even in America) try McDonald’s. Does it matter? Obviously not. The choice is yours.
There is no need for a possessive apostrophe in ‘yours’, or ‘ours’, ‘theirs’ and words of that ilk. And ‘its’. Belonging to ‘it’. ‘Its’. It seems to me that it is the source of much confusion. Let’s drop the single quote marks around apostrophe affected words for just a mo, see if that helps with clarity. Its means ‘belonging to it’ – its meaning is clear. However, it is often easily confused with it’s, meaning ‘it is’. As a possessive, its requires no apostrophe whatever. Ever.
Sins of Omission
But, of course, that’s not all there is to it’s. An apostrophe drops in to mark an omission, often a contraction where the remaining typography closes up to fill the gap. So, it’s – with an apostrophe – means ‘it is’. The apostrophe takes care of the space before the next word and the missing bit of ‘it’. Partly, mainly, because that’s, erm, the way we talk and punctuation wriggles and squiggles to keep up. If you’d say ‘do not’ then that’s how it should appear in written text (it’s well worth remembering that apostrophes only exist in writing). If not, don’t.
- ‘Do not’ has an easy logic: replace the second ‘o’, with an apostrophe and close it all up. Doesn’t, hasn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t too.
- ‘Cannot’, can’t; ‘shall not’, shan’t; and ‘will not’, won’t, are more complex but they still make good sense.
- It’s not all negative either. ‘I am’, I’m; ‘you will’, you’ll; ‘he is’, he’s; ‘they are’, they’re; and so on. If you can say it there’ll be a way to write it.
- ‘Why did?’, why’d?; ‘who did?’, who’d?; ‘where is?’, where’s?; ‘what is?’, what’s?; ‘how is?’; how’s? are all good questions.
Time for a question. What’s the time? ’Tis, it is, one o’clock. How many people say ‘one of the clock’ nowadays?
It’s definitely time for a diversion. Earlier I enjoyed a brief pause at Land’s End’s possessive apostrophe. Land’s End is legendarily the most south-westerly point on the British mainland (disclaimer: it isn’t, actually, but it’s close). The north-easternmost point of the island (more or less) is also adorned with an apostrophe, only this time it’s one of omission. Welcome to John O’Groats. From Land’s End to John O’Groats, and between these extremes, dependin’ on tastes, you may enjoy rock ’n’ roll, R’n’B, country ’n’ western, or a good ol’ knees up – droppin’ your aitches as you do the ’Okey Cokey. Ev’ry taste is catered for by apostrophes, guv’nor. Maybe you’d like to stay in a cosy B’n’B or one of those ’oity-toity places that has a maître d’ and table d’hôte. You could even indulge in a spot of huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ if you are that way inclined. You get the idea. Everyone’s right. In as far as it goes.
By the way, literally, on your travels you may notice an unnecessary apostrophe being used in the creation of plurals. These are marks of civilization and should be treasured. To that end you should know that only two of the apostrophes in the next sentence are defiantly misplaced, and none are missing.
- The greengrocer’s is open on Saturday’s for the sale of Brussels sprout’s.
The misplaced squiggles, unnecessarily popping in before the final ‘s’ of a plural noun, are to be cherished as a stylistic form. They are recognised as ‘greengrocers apostrophe’s’, or ‘grocer’s apostrophes’. For punctilious punctuators these are a red rag to their bullshit, and these self-appointed standard-bearers can tolerate no excuse for such displays of grammar ignorance. What they choose to forget in their zeal is that punctuation is there to serve the sentence. Words are more important. Strictly speaking (how else do pedants communicate?) an errant apostrophe needn’t be there – but it is, because a writer cared enough to put it in. Overwhelming usage proves the importance of the greengrocers apostrophe in public signage, and argues for elevation of this bullied underdog to the status of national treasure. Like a dialect, the errant (never aberrant) apostrophe enriches our culture.
Besides which, the apostrophe actually does already – and quite correctly – create plurals: when dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s to make things clearer, for example. All the while singing along to Pulp’s 1995 classic commentary on rave culture, ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’.
And, equally correct in its use, to make an abbreviation behave like a verb. If that’s what you need it to do, OK?
They’re OK’ing … or DJ’ing … or OD’ing.
That was me Q.E.D’ing.
& while we while were on verbs, I thought you’d like to know that there’s a verb that means ‘to add an apostrophe’. According to the OED, it’s ‘apostrophize’ (and, yes, it’s still spelt with a ‘z’ pronounced ‘zed’). That was me O.E.D’ing.
Now, all that having been said, here’s the big question: does an apostrophe really matter that much? Obviously not. An apostrophe really doesnt make that much difference. So, can there be any excuse for apostrophe nuts getting in a proper two an’ eight when faced with a misplaced or missing squiggle. In the misappropriated words of an old Bee Gees’ song, ‘It’s Only Words’; yet some people, like those who think the Apostrophe Protection Society is worth their time and effort, rail and snigger and mutter about ‘standards’ every time a squiggle fails to meet their exacting standards. Its no wonder I have an apostrophe nut allergy.
And finally, as they say of the lighthearted item at the end of a news’ bulletin, the apostrophe still has a pleasing trick or two up its sleeve.
How about a few more non-conformist apostrophes?
You need look no further than the cultural icons of the music charts.
Who could argue that American rockers, Guns N’ Roses set a great apostrophe rocking example? In the years since 1985, when the band was formed, familiarity has bred abbreviation, but – and this really is too cool for school – even when compressed the GN’R apostrophe refuses to conform.
If your musical taste boogies to a poppier beat, early noughties UK chart-troublers Hear’Say managed to make the pop apostrophe dance. Like the group, it was there by design, and manufactured for effect.
However, the most singular apostrophe in popular music dates back to 1974 when the lone punctuation mark squiggled to number 10 in the US charts: pronounced ‘Apostrophe’ by the rock-cognoscenti, (‘) was Frank Zappa’s 18th album.
& then there’s the London coffee chain, apostrophe. Established in 2001, this company really knows how to have fun with an eponymous punctuation mark. The logo features an apostrophe, so laid back it’s literally horizontal, surfing the second ‘o’ of the carefully lowercase type-styled name, much in the manner of a pink tilde [õ]. It is also absolutely untypable.
Proud stand you o’er the common word,
With fine expectations of possession and omission.
Yet fair may the truth be,
Unnoticed in speech, you’ll not be heard,
Unnoticed in text – save when out o’ your position.
Here endeth this apostrophication.
Except to say sorry. I was going to take note of how many apostrophes I used. I lost track. Sorry.
 Collected in All the Best: The Selected Poems of Roger MGough, Penguin UK, 2004.
 The 20th Century started on January 1st 1901. Do the math.
 Thank you, Wikipedia.
 Stereo MC’s, Supernatural, 1990; artwork by Trevor Jackson.
 Thought by some etymythologists to be named for Jan de Groot (or Groote) a.k.a. John de Groat, a 15th century Dutchman who ran a ferry between Caithness and Orkney. Others suggest that a groat was the cost of a ferry crossing.
 Words, words and music by Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb (the Bee Gees), 1968.
 The Apostrophe Protection Society could actually be one man and his website.
 Yes, I know. Just teasin’.