You say St James', I say St James's. We are in a muddle over apostrophe s

David Lister reports on a disturbing grammatical trend that will leave purists aghast with exclamation marks
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The Independent Online
The novelist, playwright, journalist and self-appointed custodian of the English language, Keith Waterhouse, claims to have in his back garden an apostrophe incinerator.

"It is kept continually on the go," says Mr Waterhouse, who has also appointed himself Life President of the Association of the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

This weekend, flames will be leaping from the incinerator at such a lick you might think it's Guy Fawkes' night, or you might think it's Guy Fawkes's night, or if you really want to give Mr Waterhouse apoplexy, you might think "its Guy Fawkes night".

The latest change in attitudes to the apostrophe, adding a disturbing footnote to literary history, comes from two of the most famous publishing houses, which appear to be discarding the final s after the s apostrophe with names ending in an s. In other words, in Lady Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot, it is Fawkes' plot and not Fawkes's, while a new biography of Erskine Childers similarly discards the possessive s.

A call to John Murray, publishers of the book on Childers, reveals that the publishing house's apostrophe obsessive is John Murray himself. "I'm fascinated by apostrophes," he declares. "I'm driven to total distraction by people who put 60's, which means of the year of 60, not of the decade. Suddenly everybody is misusing the apostrophe."

However, in the interest of reader friendliness, rigid rules can slip, it seems. "We have our stylebook, but we break the rules sometimes," Mr Murray admits. "A lot of it is a matter of appearance. You don't want to be too pedantic and hold the reader up because something looks odd. St James's looks right [Prince Charles', no Prince Charles's, letterhead retains the usage of St James's] but Childers's one thought looked odd. We set a high standard, but if things hold the reader up, we are prepared to change."

At Weidenfeld & Nicolson, publishers of The Gunpowder Plot, the book's editor, Rebecca Wilson, rejects the notion of there being any firm ruling any more. "I don't think there is a correct way. Either works as long as you're consistent. I think I prefer it without the extra s. I think the extra s is slightly clumsy. It's inelegant. And Antonia Fraser wrote it without the extra s after Fawkes'." The apostrophe became associated with possessives for historical reasons. A few hundred years ago, the possessive of pigs was pigges, pronounced with two syllables. When the e ceased to be pronounced, an apostrophe was inserted, and the use was later extended to plural possessives.

But words, often names, that end in s have tended to cause problems. The convention has been simply to add an s, as in St James's, though there have been traditional exceptions such as Jesus' mother.

But agreement over matters pertaining to the apostrophe has been hard to achieve. The Oxford Guide to English Usage is firm that nouns ending in s add 's for the single possessive, including names such as Thomas's; but this is clearly disputed by a famous London hospital which, contrary to the pronunciation used by all of London, has irritatingly erected a large sign where it describes itself as St Thomas'.

Few errors in grammar cause linguists to implode as rapidly as the misuse of the apostrophe. Once it seemed ridiculous to go to war over Jenkins' ear. Now you could be challenged by those insisting it was Jenkins's appendage all along.

Here are just a few examples from recent skirmishes over the little squiggle:

In 1993, the then education secretary John Patten decreed that the average 14 year old would need to know the correct use of the apostrophe in sentences such as "This is Jane's bicycle". A few weeks later, a government adviser resigned over such rigidity. And Mr Patten's own civil servants at the Department of Education turned the whole fracas into farce, issuing their boss's speech with the printed sentence: "I will produce for parent's an annual report ... "

More recently, correspondents to newspaper columns have repeatedly reported aberrant greengrocers (the worst offenders apparently) forever announcing in foot-high letters that carrot's and apple's are only 20p a pound.

The wretched and widespread tendency of inserting apostrophes into plurals has also been reported by National Trust members finding that English Heritage, of all bodies, had written in castle guidebooks that this was the home of the Neville's or the Scott's or the whoever's.

A GCSE examiner reported only last month that grammar, spelling and punctuation are undervalued in schools, adding: "The apostrophe, like the cuckoo, nested where it liked, as in 'lennie think's curley's trying' and 'mean't, say's, see's and so on'."

And then there was the battle over Vera Lynn's nomenclature - the long- running dispute in the Daily Telegraph correspondence columns (I won't gamble with letters' page) over the phrase Forces' Sweetheart.

You say army, navy and airforce sweetheart without an apostrophe, argued the radical challengers. Ah, but they are standard adjectival nouns not plural possessives - argued the traditionalist winners, baffling their opponents with linguistics.

Meanwhile, Mr Waterhouse's postbag continues to bulge with sightings of aberrant apostrophes from vigilantes up and down the land. One spotted a sign (now thankfully removed)on Leeds railway station which read, "Railtrack Welcome's you to Leeds City Station".

Challenged over this, a Railtrack spokesman several entries short of a dictionary retorted: "What do you want us to do - take the offender away and have them hung, drawn and quartered?"

Wearily Mr Waterhouse sighed: "A misplaced apostrophe is not a spelling mistake, pictures are hung but persons are hanged and 'them' is not a pronoun for an offender."

A review of Antonia Fraser's 'The Gunpowder Plot' appears in this week's 'Sunday Review'.