linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Friday 25 January, 2013]
I’ve compressed a lot of information into a short space, in this entry. It’s important to get across the fact that there are two main uses for the apostrophe, which shouldn’t be mixed up.
(1) The apostrophe marks that something has been omitted. These cases include contractions (there’s, she’ll, n’t, e’er), certain abbreviations in conservative writing style (’cello, ’phone), and transcriptions of words in vernacular speech (goin’, ’cos). Note that sometimes an apostrophe may mark a shortened form in writing which does not correspond to anything in speech, as when in casual note-taking we might write quot’n for quotation.
(2) The apostrophe also indicates a grammatical contrast - mainly, the singular/plural contrast in the genitive construction (see case), as in girl’s and girls’, where nothing has been omitted. (Having said this, it should be noted that the origins of this use may indeed reflect the omission of a sound. Opinions vary, but the genitive apostrophe may derive from the shortening of an Early Modern English construction (as in Henry his name), or it may be a remnant of the vowel formerly present in the genitive ending of Old English.) Another grammatical use is where the apostrophe shows an unusual grammatical form - for example, plurals such as 1890’s, if’s and buts, and i’s and t’s, or past tenses such as macro’d.
There's a great deal of uncertainty these days over the use of the apostrophe. Students will regularly see such shop notices as tomato’s and butchers shop. With large businesses, for example, an -s ending is sometimes interpreted as a plural and sometimes as a genitive, so we find both Woolworths and Woolworth’s, Barclays and Barclay’s. The trend to drop the apostrophe from business names began around the end of the nineteenth century, and today it is almost always omitted in shop signs, placards, posters, and the like (for instance, the London tube stations are St Pauls and Earls Court). Modern typographical designers often think that the apostrophe is fussy and old-fashioned, and most publishing house styles now do not use it in such contexts as ifs and buts or 1990s. People with a strongly conservative or purist streak will be horrified by this, but we have to remember that the history of the apostrophe in English is hardly 400 years old. The mark was introduced in the sixteenth century, and took a century to become widespread, often being used in ways which seem alien now (for instance it marked the plural of words ending in a vowel, so that we find such forms as comma’s). The uncertainty steadily grew until, in the middle of the nineteenth century, grammarians and printers laid down rules as to how the apostrophe was to be used. Several arbitrary decisions were made, and within a few years their validity came to be disputed. It’s not surprising, therefore, that little over a century later people are still uncertain about its use.
The moral of all this is plain. If students have trouble learning the modern conventions governing the use of the apostrophe, this is understandable, and teaching policy over corrections should recognise different levels of seriousness in the errors, and the need for different kinds of explanation. Cases where the distinction is critical in writing (such as girl’s and girls’) need to be distinguished from cases where no contrast (and thus no ambiguity) is involved (Shaw, for example, wrote such forms as havnt, in his later plays), and both of these from cases where there is wide variation in adult usage (as in Mans/Man’s Shop or Teachers/Teacher’s/Teachers’ College). Send everyone out on an apostrophe hunt, and see what they bring back.
RG 34; CGEL III.27; ET 8, 19

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