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22.4.04

Posessive Apostrophes 

(stolen straight from Michael Quinion, who published this on World Wide Words)

The greengrocer's speciality

It’s only a little mark, but its misuse arouses more bad temper among purists than any other punctuation. (That introduction brings to mind the irregular conjugation: “I am a careful writer; you are a purist; he is a pedant”.)

Purists and pedants alike regularly blench when they see the things even supposedly careful writers do with the apostrophe. It is regularly misused even in supposedly high-quality broadsheet newspapers in Britain; the position in the US is even worse, to judge from howlers reported in alt.usage.english. Keith Waterhouse, the veteran British writer and columnist, claims to have appointed himself Life President of the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe, and to keep a bonfire continually burning in his back garden to incinerate them.

From the number of examples I’ve spotted, he should keep warm this winter with no trouble. The biggest mistake, and one which is of some antiquity, is to include an apostrophe in a word which is a simple plural: tomato’s 30p. This is so common a misuse in displays of fruit and vegetables outside shops that it has been dignified by the name greengrocer’s apostrophe. A famous example appeared in a press release from the Department of Education in 1993: “I will produce for parent’s an annual report ...”; what a pity it was in a transcript of a speech by the Minister about the need for good standards in writing. Another common mistake is to confuse it’s and its, the former being a contraction of it is and the latter a possessive pronoun. So you see daft phrases such as “its time to go home” or “the dog has lost it’s bone”. A third is to confuse whose with who’s, the latter being an abbreviation for “who is”.

Special problems arise when you create possessives for names already ending in “s”. Is it Charles’ Wain or Charles’s Wain? The latter sounds and looks better. Is it St James’s Street or St James’ Street? Custom and rhythm go for the former. Jones’s house indicates that only one person named Jones lives there; if a family does, it should be the Joneses’ house, which sounds exactly the same but looks odd on the page. Until recently, the usual form was Jesus’ and not Jesus’s but this tradition, described in Hart’s Rules as “an acceptable liturgical archaism”, was finally broken in the New English Bible of the mid-sixties.

Despite this special case, there is a tendency towards using just a terminating apostrophe in names ending in “s”. A particularly annoying example is that of a famous London teaching hospital; when I was very small and had been mildly naughty, my father, a true-bred Londoner, would jokingly offer me his two clenched fists, naming one “sudden death” and the other “St Thomas’s Hospital”. It’s been called that for generations, the final “s” improving the flow of the name, but the new NHS hospital trust recently put up a sign identifying it as St Thomas’ Hospital, ignoring the evidence for the extra “s” that is literally graven in stone above their heads.

Even more problems arise when you’re not sure about the origin of the name. One of the colleges of Cambridge University is, correctly, Queens’ College, because it was founded by two queens (the Oxford one had only one royal benefactor, so it is Queen’s College). And what of November 5? Is it Guy Fawkes’ Day or Guy Fawkes’s Day?
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Lynne Truss's runaway success tome on punctuation.
The one certain thing is that it isn’t Guy Fawke’s Day, because his name was Fawkes, with the “s” already on. And what does one do about Lloyd’s, the famous insurance market in London? How do you make a possessive out of that? “Names are complaining that some Lloyd’s’s syndicates were badly managed”? The style guide of the Economist says firmly “try to avoid using [it] as a possessive; it poses an insoluble problem”. Amen to that.

The British newspaper the Independent on Sunday recently reported that a trend is emerging for publishers to use fewer apostrophes, the comment being provoked by the decision of Antonia Fraser to leave out the possessive apostrophe after Fawkes in her new book The Gunpowder Plot. But the evidence shows that possessive apostrophes have been dropping like flies for years. It has long been common to leave them out of placenames, though custom plays a particularly powerful role here: why else would it be Lord’s Cricket Ground but Earls Court? Advertising fashion has eroded apostrophes from the names of many firms, as with Harrods (someone stole that apostrophe many years ago, so weakening the store’s link with the late Mr Henry Harrod), and such common British High Street names as Boots, Currys, Debenhams, Barclays Bank and a host of small shops named Browns, Trumans and their like.

My impression is that fashion, the real difficulties that exist in some cases, and—particularly—the absence of firm teaching of grammar and punctuation in school, are all leading to an accelerating decline in the use of the possessive apostrophe. It hasn’t happened yet, but I can imagine a time coming when there will be too small a group of writers with the requisite knowledge and too great an assemblage of bad practice for the position to be easily salvageable.
Mr Waterhouse may just have to buy some warmer winter wear ...





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