Tag Archives: apostrophe


McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.

The Age of the Greengrocer

I keep coming across writers – writers: people who delight in the manipulation of words – who render someone’s age as “40’s”.

Why?  What is that apostrophe doing?

An apostrophe stands in the place of some text commonly acknowledged to be missing.  (I live on the outskirts of So’ton, where the apostrophe is commonly acknowledged to cover for the missing “uthamp”.)  In the case of the age, we are looking at a plural – indicating any one of the years of a decade.  In this respect, forty is treated like pony.  The plural ends in ies: ponies.  What’s missing?  If we wrote it pony’s, it would be a possessive: the pony’s saddle.  The text commonly acknowledged to be missing in a possessive is “his”, but it’s so long since anybody used “the pony his saddle” in full that the long form is in total disuse.  The only place I can recall ever coming across it is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where the account book of the pirate Bill Bones refers to his share of the loot as “Bones his pile”, but Stevenson was using a deliberate archaism to make the character sound piratical.

Back to the case in point, is 40s a possessive?  No, of course it isn’t.  Forty does not claim ownership of anything.  The age is the thing possessed, in this case by a person in the character list of a play.  You can see that if you write out the character description in full, where we can see the age being conveyed by “his”: George, an engineer in his 40s.

The objection here is that writing the ess next to the zero looks odd.  Fair enough, but if you can’t bear to write a letter next to a numeral, then write out the word forties.

An acute case of greengrocer's apostrophe
Greengrocer’s apostrophe: an acute case.