Wednesday 10 September 1997
Last week, the apostrophe had another indignity heaped upon it: Butlin's have decided that from next year they will follow the unseemly lead set by Harrods, Hamleys and Selfridges, by dropping their apostrophe and calling themselves simply "Butlins".
Now the first thing to note about the apostrophe is that we all pronounce it wrong. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, we borrowed the word from the French apostrophe, and like that word it should be pronounced with three syllables, not four. The OED says that it has been "ignorantly confused" with the figure of speech in rhetoric known also as an apostrophe (with four syllables), meaning a turning away from one's discourse to address some other person or thing.
The second thing to note about the apostrophe is that its usage as a possessive is of fairly modern vintage. The use of 's for a genitive singular became popular only in the late 17th century, having begun as a piece of shorthand by scribes who wanted to save time by not writing the full -es ending of the genitive of certain nouns. The s' plural possessive did not appear until the end of the 18th century. In this way, the original primary use of the apostrophe - to signify something missing - split into two apparently distinct uses: omission and possession. That explains why some people are so easily confused by its and it's. the first is a possessive - but without an apostrophe because it is a well-formed genitive pronoun like his and her - and the second is an abbreviation of "it is", with the apostrophe marking the missing letter.
There is considerably less excuse, however, for another common apostrophic error. Fowler recorded the earliest sightings of it in 1926, when the first edition of his Modern English Usage appeared. He quotes a letter to The Times: "TEA'S outside the wayside cottage is bad enough, but I have seen SHIRT'S and VEST'S in a large Oxford St. shop."
Robert Burchfield, in his 1996 rewrite of Fowler, mentions that such a use "is often called the greengrocers' apostrophe", but does he have his own apostrophe in the right place in that phrase? There is surely an argument that, as in the phrase "busman's holiday" we are talking not of a plurality of busmen or greengrocers but of the generic greengrocer whose offensive apostrophe pollutes his sign.
But let us not fall out over this, for Dr Burchfield gives a splendid account of good and evil apostrophes, even including a list of those whose apostrophes have fallen from grace: Barclays Bank, Farmers Weekly Mothers Pride ... even Teachers Training College. As he wisely predicted: "The trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe in such names and titles seems certain to continue."
Godfrey Howard's Good English Guide, however, points out that there is still a good deal of confusion. It is Lord's Cricket Ground but Earls Court; St John's Wood but All Souls College. "The famous store founded by Henry Harrod," he says, "lost its apostrophe in mysterious circumstances." Selfridges were also unable to tell us when they lost theirs.
But there is a remedy to all this. When Butlin's and others choose to drop an apostrophe, all true pedants should re-insert it, not as a possessive but as a sign that the apostrophe has been omitted.
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