An apostrophe is a punctuation mark used to indicate the omission of letters or numbers or to indicate the possessive case. It is also an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem, addressed to a person (often dead or absent) or thing (often personified). This sentence contains both usages by quoting the first line of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819): “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.”
In March 2013 it was reported that councillors in the English county of Devon were proposing banning apostrophes from street signs because of the “potential confusion” they cause (the apostrophes, not the street signs). The council said its new streets had not contained apostrophes for many years, but the policy could now be made official.
The Plain English Campaign, which is for crystal-clear communication and against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information, called it nonsense. “If it’s to try to make things clearer, it’s not going to work. The whole purpose of punctuation is to make language easier to understand. Is it because someone at the council doesn’t know how it works?” Quite probably!
In 2009 it was decreed that no sign produced by Birmingham City Council would contain an apostrophe. Debates over whether Kings Norton really should be King’s – or even Kings’ – Norton may rage on, but they will be useless. And nearby Druids Heath, which was never actually home to one or several druids, will forever be bereft of the possessive.
The founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, John Richards, remarked, “It seems retrograde, dumbing down really. All over Birmingham, and in other cities, teachers are trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation… If you don’t have apostrophes, is there any point in full stops, or semi-colons, or question marks? Is there any point in punctuation at all?”
The apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16th century in imitation of French practice. It was used when a vowel was omitted either because of incidental elision (I’m for I am) or because the letter no longer represented a sound (lov’d for loved). The use of elision has continued to the present day, but significant changes have been made to its possessive and plural uses.
The apostrophe indicates possession. This convention distinguishes possessive singular forms (Bernadette’s, flower’s, glass’s, one’s) from simple plural forms (Bernadettes, flowers, glasses, ones), and both of those from possessive plural forms (Bernadettes’, flowers’, glasses’, ones’). For singulars, the modern possessive is a survival from certain genitive inflections in Old English, and the apostrophe originally marked the loss of the old e (for example, lambes became lamb’s).
Canadian-born scientist and author Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994) illustrates four different meanings using apostrophes in different places in the same sentence:
- My sister’s friend’s investments (the investments belonging to a friend of my sister).
- My sister’s friends’ investments (the investments belonging to several friends of my sister).
- My sisters’ friend’s investments (the investments belonging to a friend of several of my sisters).
- My sisters’ friends’ investments (the investments belonging to several friends of several of my sisters).
The English novelist and critic Kingsley Amis, challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with:
- Those things over there are my husband’s. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
- Those things over there are my husbands’. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
- Those things over there are my husbands. (I’m married to those men over there.)