PEDANTRY

If you look in the index of Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, you will find nothing between "apology" and "applicable". Similarly, the third edition of Fowler's The King's English has no entry between "anyway" and "appendicitis"; and Robert Clairborne's The Life and Times of the English Language leaps from "anvil" to "apple". What is wrong with the apostrophe that all these worthy men choose to ignore it?

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.

William Hartston

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

    £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

    Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

    C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

    C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home