Crimes against the apostrophe

IT SEEMS that the apostrophe, that tadpole-shaped punctuation mark which spawns grammatical chaos throughout the land, is wriggling its way into more inappropriate situations than ever before.

The much put-upon apostrophe must be the most misused and abused item of punctuation in the English language, just a blip on a page, but clearly not on everyone's radar as it crops up extraneously - or fails to appear when required - in shop windows, menus, company names, press releases, on signposts and even tombstones. Random examples include "Delicious pizza's" (but delicious pizza's what?), "Royal College of GP's" (who should really know better, one might have thought), "Your soul's are now in Heaven" (but our punctuation remains sadly earthbound), "Help is on it's way" (but send for a grammarian), "House of Lord's" (from BBC Ceefax), or the shop-window sign, passed by this writer every morning on his way to work, advertising a fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces for weddings - "Silver Cloud's, Silver Shadow's, Silver Spirit's - luxury motoring, you might say, with anarchic punctuation thrown in, gratis.

The subversive little mark is eroding the very heart of our nationhood: while Mel Gibson earned much stick for daubing William Wallace with blue face-paint, as an irate reader pointed out in this newspaper's letters pages some years ago, the Guardian of Scotland's memory was further sullied by a peppering of inappropriate apostrophes - "it's" used instead of the correct, possessive "its", no fewer than eight times - at the refurbished Wallace Monument at Stirling.

Many more examples of blatant apostrophe misuse, as well as rules for its correct use, can be gleaned from the website of the Apostrophe Protection Society, based in Boston, Lincolnshire, and formed in 2001 by John Richards, a former journalist who, as a subeditor, had to correct so much rampant apostrophe abuse perpetrated by his colleagues that he swore he'd do something about it when he retired.

"The numbers [of misplaced apostrophes] are increasing, but people are certainly noticing it," says Richards. "I get 50 to 60 e-mails a month from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, from people who are every bit as worried as I am. When I first started the society, it used to be several hundred a month, but people have got more used to it and it's died down a bit. So I think it's partly that people have become more aware, but also some people - and I have to blame the media to a certain extent for this - are just not concerned with real English grammar.

"I've spoken to English teachers and they say that they do try to teach their pupils about apostrophes, but there are so many mistakes - shop signs, doctors' waiting rooms, even official notices - it's incredible. So the children go off and see all these signs and they feel it doesn't really matter."

But where does the apostrophe come from, and why do we mistreat it in a manner which should have grammatical social workers hammering on our doors? As Lynne Truss puts it in her "zero tolerance" guide to punctuation, Eats Shoots & Leaves, the apostrophe has never been taken seriously enough, "but the naming of [the pop group] Hear'Say in 2001 was nevertheless a significant milestone on the road to punctuation anarchy".

As Truss points out, the strangely troublesome apostrophe first appeared in the English language during the 16th century, a claim endorsed by Professor Christian J Kay, of Glasgow University's department of English, who describes it being used - "but not consistently", she adds, ominously - to indicate missing sounds in words. "Thus 'walk'd' indicated the fact that the word was increasingly pronounced as a single syllable."

In early printed works, Kay says, apostrophes also cropped up, somewhat inexplicably, in words like "ha's", for "has", although at that stage the possessive was still just written with an "s" - no apostrophe. The use of "'s", as in "boy's", to mark singular possession was pretty well established by the middle of the 18th century, but there remained that all-too-familiar confusion over the plural possessive. She points to the great essayist Addison, in the early 18th century, writing "genius's" as the plural of "genius", rather than "geniuses". "By the end of the century," she explains, 's' had become the plural [possessive] form", although there remains the hoary old problem of words ending in "s".

"Somebody asked me the other day about James' v James's - the standard answer is that either is OK for a monosyllable," she says.

There are also problems, she adds, in historic plural forms - relics from old English - such as "women" and "children", which are plural but look singular: "This might also partly excuse - but not much - mistakes in forms where the spelling changes, as in 'Ladie's Clothing', or 'Grocerie's'."

Prof Kay observes drily that: "The person who wished Glasgow University staff a 'Happy X'mas' may have thought that he or she was marking an omission. Poets still do this in words like 'e'en' for 'even' or 'e'er' as in 'ever'." However, she can find little excuse for M&S's bloomer in "the one's we used to know": "Unless 'one's' is a reference to the Queen's pyjamas..."

In Scotland, of course, we have some additional complications with apostrophe usage and abusage in its traditional employment to denote "missing" letters in written Scots language, as in Robert Burns's For A' That. However, these letters may be deemed missing in a standard English context, but in Scots they were unlikely to have been there in the first place. Such "apologetic apostrophes", as they're sometimes known, are not favoured so much these days, as Scots becomes more accepted as a valid means of expression.

So is the correctly deployed apostrophe an endangered species? Professor Kay reckons that "a form which is so widely misunderstood might not survive the pressures of mass literacy, e-mails, texting, etc", and asks: "If it is so difficult to teach, is it worth preserving? English no longer marks grammatical case by special endings except in this one instance: we can work out what a word means from its position in the sentence.

"However, loss of the apostrophe may cause some confusion: if we simply wrote 'the boys book', we wouldn't know whether it was one boy or several. It's difficult to imagine the singular possessive disappearing altogether and leaving 'the boy book'."

Businesses, she warns, are already giving up on the apostrophe: "Barclays Bank was presumably originally Barclay's Bank. When I commented on the absence of apostrophes in a computing leaflet recently, I was told by the company, 'We've given them up'."

One of Kay's students once tried to tell her, "I don't do apostrophes", but the plea was unaccepted. Banks and corner shops alike may be committing mass apostrocide, but at Glasgow University at least, the apostrophe knows its place, even if the students don't.

• For further information, visit The Apostrophe Protection Society's website:

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