Are you absolutely confident you know your ‘your’ from your ‘you’re’? Your ‘lets’ from your ‘let’s’? Or the one that seems to trip so many up: ‘its’ from ‘it’s’?
Apostrophes can be tricky – especially if you’ve never been properly taught how to use them. Faced with a troublesome conundrum, many will err on the side of caution and leave them out altogether. But of course this is technically wrong too, even if a slew of companies arguably set a bad example by doing the same.
More like this:
The British bookseller Waterstones, the chemist Boots, and the media organisation Reuters are among the many brands that have dropped their apostrophe over the years. When Waterstones ditched it in 2012, its then managing director James Daunt said it was doing so to make its name more ‘versatile’ for online use. By contrast, the US clothing company Lands’ End is an example of a company that has maintained the use of an incorrect apostrophe and built it into its heritage.
In the UK, you certainly don’t have to travel far to see apostrophe misuse, from a hairdresser advertising ‘ladie’s blow dry’s’ to a pub proclaiming that its ‘roast’s on Sunday’s’ are the best. The so-called ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ – a British phrase referring to the mistaken use of an apostrophe, in a plural noun (‘Cauliflower’s – two for a pound!’) is everywhere.
What is right and wrong?
But, does it even matter? And who’s to say what’s right or wrong anyhow? One of the most fascinating things about language is its dynamic nature. By necessity, it evolves to reflect how the world is changing. So do shifting habits regarding apostrophe use just mirror more general developments in language?
One person who cares more than most about apostrophes is John Richards, who founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001. His aim was to preserve “the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark.” As a journalist and sub editor for most of his life, he was continually surprised by the incorrect application of this “very useful little device”.
The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won! – John Richards
But at the end of 2019, at the age of 96, he regretfully announced that the Apostrophe Protection Society would be no more. He cited the fact that fewer organisations and individuals cared about the correct use of the apostrophe, lamenting that despite his and his supporters’ best efforts, the “ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”
Richards is certainly not alone in feeling so strongly. In the 1980s, the late novelist, playwright and journalist Keith Waterhouse founded and appointed himself Life President of the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe.
“The AAAA has two simple goals,” wrote Waterhouse. “Its first is to round up and confiscate superfluous apostrophes from, for example, fruit and vegetable stalls where potato’s, tomato’s and apple’s are openly on sale. Its second is to redistribute as many as possible of these impounded apostrophes, restoring missing apostrophes where they have been lost, mislaid or deliberately hijacked – as for instance by British Rail, which as part of its refurbishment programme is dismantling the apostrophes from such stations as King’s Cross and shunting them off at dead of night to a secret apostrophe siding at Crewe.”
The history of the apostrophe
The apostrophe probably originated in the early 16th Century – either in 1509, in an Italian edition of Petrarch, or in 1529, courtesy of French printer Geoffroy Tory, who seemingly had a fondness for creating linguistic marks, as he is also credited with inventing the accent and the cedilla. It came from the Greek apostrophē, meaning ‘the act of turning away’, and before it was used in a grammatical context, it was a rhetorical term used to describe the moment when a speaker would turn from the audience to address, typically, an absent person.
Grammatical apostrophes originally denoted absence of a different kind, signalling that something had been removed from a word, usually a vowel that was not pronounced. They were also used to show that several letters were missing, not just one. And sometimes they were added in for no obvious reason, for example in this line, by 17th Century poet Robert Herrick: “What fate decreed, time now ha’s made us see.”
The apostrophe is subject to whims of fashion, just like other things in culture and society are – Laurel Mackenzie
During the 17th and 18th Centuries, apostrophes began to be used to indicate the genitive (possessive) role of a noun. There has been debate as to the precise origins of this usage but, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary: “it seems likely that the genitive apostrophe is an illustration of our language’s older, highly inflectional state”.
But it clearly took some time for the apostrophe to take hold. Shakespeare, Jane Austen and US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were among the many authors inconsistent in their apostrophe use. And there was confusion or disagreement from the very early days of its deployment – that has not entirely cleared up five centuries later. It’s worth remembering that there has never been a time when people agreed on the ‘correct’ function of the apostrophe. “Not only does such consensus not exist in the past, it doesn’t exist now: the role of this troubling little punctuation mark is still in flux,” as Merriam Webster puts it.
Laurel MacKenzie, Assistant Professor in Linguistics at New York University, is not surprised that norms around apostrophe usage have changed. “Writing, spelling and punctuation conventions are always pretty arbitrary,” she says. “They’re set down by people who pontificate on how they think the language should be used and written – and that tends to change; the apostrophe is subject to whims of fashion, just like other things in culture and society are.”
When considering how apostrophe use has changed over time, we should bear in mind that “we don’t pronounce words the same way we did in Chaucer’s time, we don’t make verbs the same way we did in Shakespeare’s time,” she says. “[The evolution of language is] nothing that we can try to stop, it’s inevitable.”
However Colin Matthews, head of English at Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, England, says he doesn’t think the evolution of language is “an excuse not to be clear and unambiguous”. For him, teaching grammar is about avoiding ambiguity; it’s not about “knowing how an apostrophe is used; it’s about clarity in meaning.”
There are, of course, multitudes who survive perfectly well without knowing how to use apostrophes, but Matthews believes that while there are still prospective employers “who will throw a job application in the bin if the apostrophes are wrong,” we need to continue teaching children how to use them correctly.
The last acceptable prejudice?
This kind of linguistic ‘gate-keeping’ has been responsible for many precepts, for example the shunning of double negatives (eg ‘I didn’t see no-one’). Hundreds of years ago, they were considered perfectly acceptable: highly educated merchants and nobles used them as the norm. Over time, this changed and, MacKenzie says: “the community of English speakers decided that it was no longer a sophisticated or intelligent way of speaking.”
But many will use double negatives when they’re most relaxed, when communicating with friends or in order to create emphasis. So demanding people change the way they speak in order to get a certain type of job, says MacKenzie: “is really requiring people to give up part of their identity and a part of themselves.” This sort of linguistic discrimination is “really pervasive and really insidious,” she adds – and it equally applies to judgments made around apostrophe usage. “I often describe linguistic prejudice as the last acceptable bastion of prejudice.”
The apostrophe is a difficult mark because it has two uses – Colin Matthews
Of all the aspects of grammar and punctuation taught in schools, apostrophes seem to pose one of the biggest challenges, as evidenced by everything from apparent errors in texts and emails to signage on the street. Why do people struggle with the apostrophe in particular? Matthews describes it as “a difficult mark” because it has two uses. But the biggest problem with the apostrophe, he says, is that in its possessive usage, it makes a singular noun sound “exactly the same as the plural – and because there’s no difference when you speak it, you have to have the understanding of its purpose in order to get it right when you write it.”
Apostrophes’ silence is a big part of their trickiness, agrees MacKenzie. “We have nothing to go on when we want to write them down, apart from these arbitrary rules that we’ve been taught.” MacKenzie observes that we cope without apostrophes in spoken language. For example, if someone says ‘the king’s crown’. As the apostrophe is not pronounced, we don’t know if one was intended, yet we intuit that the possessive is meant, rather than the plural of kings, because it wouldn’t make sense otherwise.
Inconsistency is another reason we find apostrophes challenging. MacKenzie says there are some “weird little exceptions to the system”. For example, we’re taught to make a possessive by adding an apostrophe ‘s’, which works for nouns, but then the possessive pronoun ‘its’ prescriptively doesn’t have an apostrophe. She observes that “people love making fun of those people who mix up it’s with an apostrophe and its without – but, well, it is possessive so why doesn’t it have it have an apostrophe? It really should!” And as she says: “the more exceptions to the rule, the harder the rule becomes to learn.”
What’s the future of the apostrophe?
For MacKenzie, rather than pondering whether we, as a society, should be sticklers for maintaining the rules around apostrophes, the question is more: “should we adhere to the arbitrary standards that have been set down now?” “It’s all subjective, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. There’s nothing inherently correct about using apostrophes in a particular way,” she says.
Even within what is generally considered to be the ‘correct’ usage of apostrophes, there can be some variation according to personal preference. For example, ‘James’ car is red’ is correct, but so is ‘James’s car is red’. There is some debate and ambiguity over whether, if the possessor is a singular noun that happens to end in an -s, an apostrophe should simply be added to the end, or whether an apostrophe and an additional ‘s’ is needed.
The University of Bristol’s English department style guide recommends that proper nouns that end in -s form their possessive form by adding – ‘s. Whereas the BBC Style Guide advises that for names, the possessive ‘s should be used whenever possible, but that you also should be guided by how the last syllable of the name is pronounced, and omit the extra s in certain cases. It appears that both approaches are acceptable, and that there is a degree of personal preference. Probably the best rule of thumbs is, whichever you decide to use, make sure you are consistent.
My view is that grammar such as apostrophes is useful because of its ability to clarify, change or convey meaning, not as an end in its own right – Tom Hyndley
Or with numbers, when referring to a particular decade, some would write ‘the 1990s’ and others ‘the 1990’s’. No wonder it can get confusing for someone who might not have been taught the minutiae.
So who are the arbiters of what’s right and wrong when it comes to apostrophes? In early life, they are English language teachers, following a set curriculum. Later on, we can be guided by media such as The New York Times or The Guardian, who each have their own rules. “It’s a chicken and egg problem; do they set their style guides based on what’s taught in schools or vice versa?” MacKenzie asks.
Like many linguists, MacKenzie explains that she started out as a “raving prescriptivist”, who was militant about punctuation rules, but in time she learned the extent to which these can serve as gate-keeping mechanisms and remove opportunities for some. Linguists aren’t grammarians, but rather study how language is used in the real world, she says. “We’re not here to tell people what they’re doing wrong. We’re here to tell people what they’re doing is great.”
So does she see it as problematic, if the apostrophe is not just supposedly misused, but in its dying days? Her response errs to the philosophical and jokingly flips the question on its head: “would I be sad to see apostrophes disappear? I don’t know. What is a comma? It’s just a lower apostrophe, so it’s not like it would really be gone.” However, as Tom Hyndley, the headmaster of Churchfields Primary School notes, the apostrophe is certainly valuable in its ability to aid comprehension in written English: “my view, probably like many in education, is that grammar [such as apostrophes] is useful because of its ability to clarify, change or convey meaning not as an end in its own right.”
But, even if we believe there is a correct way to use apostrophes, perhaps we should be a little less quick to judge slip ups. “Language is so tied up in power and class,” says Matthews, “and if you can’t follow [certain] rules, then you are disadvantaged.” By contrast, those in a position of power, such as the companies who choose to drop the apostrophes in their company names, are allowed to change the rules at will.
As for John Richards, his work lives on. Although the Apostrophe Protection Society is no longer active, a website detailing examples and guides to help people understand correct apostrophe usage still exists. He believed the apostrophe needed protection as an “endangered species”: he and his hundreds of supporters worldwide have surely gone a little way to helping it avoid extinction.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.