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.
Life & Style blogs
This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
Tinder Plus: premium service launches, charging much more for those over 28
My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin: How I outwitted the Gestapo
Drinking three to five cups of a coffee a day could reduce risk of heart attacks, study finds
Running test reveals whether you will die in the next decade
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 1 Bill Clinton portrait features Monica Lewinsky reference, artist admits
- 2 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler/Probate ...
£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This precious metal refining co...
£20000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Conveyancing Fee Earne...
£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...