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The English apostrophe
( ' )
a user's guide
Shamed by your vague grasp of the English apostrophe (that little ' that people feel compelled to put in whenever they see an -s.)?
No more: help is at hand!
Also, there will be comments by an erudite visitor to this website...
...and a link to apostrophe obsessives: www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk;
...and a confession about an error in an earlier version of this little tract;
...and more on the correct spelling of St Thomas's Hospital;
...and a photograph of the ultimate apostrophe catastrophe;
...and a gratuitous rant on the metric system!
Photo sent in by readers of this website. From a grocer's in
The flagrant misuse of the English apostrophe is now so widespread that it is almost universal. The plague of misunderstanding that started in the street markets (where Apple's £1 /kg is wrong but excusable) has spread as far as solicitors' offices. I have even seen it's in legal documents where its is intended.
A misplaced apostrophe can mark you out as having an incomplete grasp of the written language just as much as an error in spelling. Worse, your computer spelling checker will not warn you of the most blatant apostrophe errors. Yet the underlying principles are easy to master.
Principle 1: The main and correct use of the apostrophe is to indicate something left out.
can't for cannot, and shan't for shall not: the apostrophe stands in place of the missing letter o in not;
Lewis Carroll argued that the correct spelling should be sha'n't, because there are two ells missing as well. However, some may find that excessively logical. Certainly it has never caught on.>
Further correct examples:
Isn'tfor is not;
It'sfor it is.
Here we come to one of the commonest errors! It's always means it is, and should never be used for possession.
What do I mean by possession? For example: the mouse was very tiny and its tail was only half an inch long.
Its tail means the mouse's tail. People get confused because they see the apostrophe in mouse's and they think they have to put it into its as well. This is one of those idiocies in written English that is annoying and requires some explanation (see principles 2 and 3 below).
Principle 2: Don't (do not) use the apostrophe with pronouns!
What is a pronoun? It's (it is) a little word that stands for a thing or a person. Pronouns are such words as I, me, my, she, her, he, him, his, it, its, we, us, our, you, your, they, them, their.
You wouldn't write hi's would you? Of course not! So don't write it's unless you mean it is. He is would be he's.
Confession time. In the original version I claimed, quite wrongly, that the pronoun rule also applies to the impersonal pronoun one. It is difficult to keep one's apostrophes in the right place, because English is irrational. My erudite correspondent Antony Brown corrects me:
"I appeal to the original Fowler, which gives only one's ('one does not like to have one's word doubted') and notes an American and older English use of his and himself with a subject one - but definitely prefers one's and oneself. I almost believe that Fowler is Never Wrong, and if you want to contradict him you should cite examples from good nineteenth-century authors. I realize that 'no apostrophe in a pronoun' is a good rule, but like most rules of English spelling, you can let it have one exception - one's. One has to include one among the pronouns, if one allows oneself to use oneself, so there we are." - Antony Brown
(As Charlie Brown used to say, "Aauuugh!")
Principle 3: the possessive apostrophe is an abomination, hallowed only by usage.
English is a Teutonic language at heart (although enriched with a vast French and Latin vocabulary). It is cousin to German, Dutch, and Swedish, among others. German usually has the ending -s or -es for possession, as in:
Gottes Wille (God's will)
No apostrophe in German. The -es ending indicates possession. Similar changes in word endings occur in other languages, and are called inflections by grammarians.
There is no need for any apostrophe, and how it crept into English writing I do not know. As a child at primary school I was told the apostrophe stood for the missing pronoun, so Fred's pencil would be an abbreviation for Fred his pencil. The theory is appealing because it is logical and fits with principle 1, but I believe it to be false. If this were the true explanation, then similar constructions would occur in German (or indeed in Chaucer), which as far as I know is not the case. Also Alice's Cheshire Cat should by this theory be Alice'r Cheshire Cat, which is of course nonsense. (In Chaucer, we read of The Clerkes Tale, not The Clerk's Tale, so at most the apostrophe represents the missing -e in the possessive ending.)
(Since writing the above, I have received an email from someone interested in this question, who challenges my understanding of German and Middle English, and whose comments are to be found at the foot of this page.)
It appears there is some disease in the English mind which tends over the centuries to increase the number of apostrophes. This disease has now reached its crisis, in that it can hardly get any worse.
George Bernard Shaw tried to persuade people not to put in the possessive apostrophe, but this has not caught on. Nevertheless, if in doubt it is better to leave an apostrophe out than to put it in. This is because if you leave it out incorrectly this will be put down either to an oversight or to an affinity with the views of George Bernard Shaw. On the other hand, if you put it in incorrectly this will be attributed (rightly) to ignorance.
However, the author of the bestselling book Eats, Shoots and Leaves would probably disagree, as she seems to think that we should all make the effort to put every apostrophe in its correct place.
If you want to know the correct way of putting in the possessive apostrophe, it is this
The word up to the apostrophe must make sense. For example, the children's toys, because there is no such word as childrens. Similarly, the people's choice. The word preceding the apostrophe should be singular or plural according to the intention of the writer (examples: the solicitor's office; solicitors' offices). Where a singular word ends in an -s, such as St James, the correct possessive form is St James's (as in St James's Church, St Thomas's Hospital), with the extra -s being also normally pronounced in speech.
Oh no! Another caveat: Dr H.R., writing perhaps from St Thomas' Hospital itself, writes: it may help you to know how St. Thomas' Hospital (its official name) in London justifies its use of just one 's'. They say it is because it is named after two people called St. Thomas - St. Thomas the apostle, and St. Thomas of Canterbury.
Shouldn't it be St Thomases' Hospital, then? However, apparently institutions can call themselves anything they like, grammatical or otherwise, and we just have to accept it. By the way, you don't put a full stop after abbreviations like St for saint (or Dr for doctor) if the last letter of the abbreviated word is retained. (Mind you I can't find this in Fowler. Maybe that's wrong as well?)
Addendum on St Thomas's Hospital
I have wandered the corridors of St Thomas's Hospital and discovered in the old part of the building ancient commemorative plaques referring consistently to St Thomas's Hospital, so there.
Principle 4: plurals do not require apostrophes.
You see? I wrote plurals do not require apostrophes with no apostrophes. Just don't do it. It is not necessary. Apples a pound a kilogram.
The ultimate apostrophe catastrophe...
...in Sète, Languedoc, France, so we'll forgive them.
Comments from an erudite correspondent
Accidentally looked at your web page called "The English Apostrophe - a User's Guide". Under Principle 3 you mention "Fred his pencil" - why doesn't this construction exist in German?
Fixed in my memory is my mother telling me (age 6?) she had asked her mother why you didn't say "Margaret'r pencil" Well you do in colloquial Dutch - "Margaret d'r hoed" or "Jan z'n hoed" for Margaret or John's hat. I learned that 17 years later. But I had to wait another 40 years to look through a book on "German dialects" to learn that in all the German local dialects (steadily being replaced by Standard German of course, which uses the genitive in a "logical" way) the possessive of a personal noun or name is always formed by using the dative case with "sein" or "ihr" or whatever after it.
A year or two later still, I bought a concise Middle English grammar at a garage sale and learned that the identical construction was commonly used in Middle English; hence "Margaret her hat" was once English. Having once read through the Canterbury Tales with a crib, I can't say I ever noticed that construction there, however.
Nothing to do with today's use of apostrophes, of course. I only send it to you because it's a piece of real information about English (and German) that one learns by the merest chance.
- from correspondent Antony Brown (reprinted with his permission).
A gratuitous rant on the metric system
As for the metric system: I note in passing the fuss that is being made about keeping 'our British pound' (ie: the money) which is in no way related to a pound of anything, while there was hardly a murmur when we parted company with a system of measurement (pounds, feet, inches etc.) which is intuitive, and which conforms to the human scale. The rule of thumb - the distal phalanx of a carpenter's thumb - is about an inch, horses are measured in hands, a yard used to be about the distance from the tip of the nose to the tip of the middle finger with the arm outstretched, and so on. How did it come about that this ancient system was abolished, supposedly to make the sums easier, just at the time when electronic calculators were invented, which could easily have been adapted to do the necessary calculations? Why cannot we have two systems, so that people can know their height in feet and inches instead of metres and millimetres (centimetres are not allowed in the Système Internationale)? If engineering has to be standardised, fine, but there is no need to convert pints into bits of litres in the pub, is there? Honey should still come in pound jars (rant, rave...).
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