The apostrophe - the rules - and the milk catastrophe - what happened
Today I dropped in to see my friend Jeremy Vine at Wogan House off Great Portland Street in London and we had a happy few minutes on his Radio 2 programme chatting about apostrophes.
My visit wasn’t entirely trauma-free. Before going on air, I was offered a mug of tea. I said, ‘Is there any milk?’ And Jessica the producer said, ‘It’s in the fridge.’ And it was. Just not in the fridge I opened. I opened the fridge adjacent to the coffee-making machine and managed to dislodge and spill a pint of the white stuff all over the floor and all over my feet. Happily, no tears were shed. Unhappily, I had to go in to the studio in sodden socks.
But I’m glad I did. The apostrophe matters. It matters to me – and I reckon it matters to a lot of other people, too. Indeed, according to every public opinion survey on the subject I’ve seen, the misplaced apostrophe – and the missing apostrophe – are the two linguistic horrors that distress most of us the most.
Incredibly, not everyone feels the same way. I once met Dr John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College, London, who maintains the apostrophe is ‘a waste of time’. George Bernard Shaw (a fellow vegetarian and, in so many ways, a great man) described apostrophes as ‘uncouth bacilli’. Intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic have campaigned for the abolition of the apostrophe over the years, on the grounds that in spoken English it is irrelevant, and in written English it’s largely unnecessary and causes more trouble than it’s worth.
I beg to differ. As Mr Russell, the head of English at the Park School, Baltimore (where I taught during my Gap Year in the 1960s), used to say: ‘Without the apostrophe, how are you going to tell the difference between feeling your nuts and feeling you’re nuts?’ I believe in the place, power and value of the apostrophe.
Once upon a time, in the United States, the war against the apostrophe was led by a remarkable man of letters called Steven Byington. He was a noted linguist (fluent in twelve languages) who translated the Bible and was kind to animals, but he had a bee in his bonnet when it came to the apostrophe and believed passionately that ‘the language would be none the worse for its abolition’. That Byington (who was undeniably brilliant) felt as he did puzzled me until I discovered his secret: he was an anarchist. That explained everything.
Give up on the apostrophe and you’re giving in to chaos. Without the apostrophe, there’s linguistic anarchy. If we go weak or wobbly in our defence of the apostrophe, we are on the slippery slope to incomprehensibility and confusion.
The late, great English novelist, Kingsley Amis, liked to illustrate the importance of the role of the apostrophe by quoting one seven-word sentence in which the placing or the absence of an apostrophe would transform the meaning of the words:
- Those things over there are my husband’s. (Meaning: Those things over there belong to my husband.)
- Those things over there are my husbands’. (Meaning: Those things over there belong to my husbands – I have more than one.)
- Those things over there are my husbands. (Meaning: I'm married to those men over there.)
Another considerable man of letters is my friend, Bernard C Lamb, Emeritus Reader in Genetics at Imperial College, London, and President of the Queen’s English Society. He likes to illustrate the power of the apostrophe with the example of the headline: BRITON’S BATTLE FATIGUE. This was an account of one Briton’s battle fatigue. Had the apostrophe followed the ‘s’ it would have indicated the battle fatigue of more than one Briton. Without the apostrophe – in Bernard Shaw and Steven Byington’s dark, anarchic world – the headline changes its meaning altogether, BATTLE transmogrifying from a noun to a verb and the headline – BRITONS BATTLE FATIGUE – suggesting a nation united in a struggle against exhaustion.
Okay, you get the message. Without apostrophes: Armageddon. We need ’em. And we need to know how to use ’em.
This apostrophe is used to do one of two things:
1. It’s there to show possession – to indicate that a thing or a person belongs or relates to someone or something.
2. It’s there to show omission – to indicate that letters are missing.
POSSESSION – THE RULES
- With singular nouns and most personal names, simply add an apostrophe followed by the letter s:
The gamekeeper’s mistress
Lady Chatterley’s lover
- With personal names that end in –s, add an apostrophe followed by further s when you would normally pronounce an extra s if you said the word out loud:
These are Gyles’s milk-sodden socks
Those are Dickens’s novels
That is Martin Rees’s telescope
- With personal names that end in -s but when said out loud are not spoken with an extra s, you just add an apostrophe after the -s:
Starbucks’ argument did not impress the Inland Revenue
Mellors’ performance much impressed Lady Chatterley
- With a plural noun that already ends in –s, you simply add an apostrophe after the s:
The new term at the boys’ school begins in two weeks’ time
The horses’ stable doors have been bolted
- With a plural noun that doesn’t end in –s, you add an apostrophe plus an s:
Yet again the women’s team scored better than the men’s team
OMISSION – THE RULES
An apostrophe is used to show when letters (or numbers) have been omitted:
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Well, it’s obvious with it’s because the i is missing from is. It’s slightly less obvious with isn’t because you are combining two words as well as dropping the o from is not.
I’m is short for I am
You’re is short for you are
He’ll is short for he will
She’d is short for she had or she would
Wouldn’t is short for would not
Shan’t is short for shall not (and in some old books you might find it written as sha’n’t)
Fish ‘n’ chips is short for fish and chips
The fo’c’sle – also known as the fo’c’s’le – is short for the forecastle, the upper deck of a sailing ship forward of the foremast
We think of the roaring ’20s as the roaring ’twenties – and that’s the decade, the 1920s or nineteen-twenties, when our grandparents were having a gay old time enjoying their roaring twenties
Agreed: it’s all a bit of a pick ‘n’ mix, especially when you remember than words like influenza and telephone were once abbreviated to ’flu and ’phone, but now have lost their apostrophes. Because I’m quite old-school I still call a violin-cello a ’cello
APOSTROPHES AND PLURALS
The rule is that you should NOT use an apostrophe to form the plurals of:
or dates made up of numbers
Instead you just add an –s, or an –es if the noun in question forms its plural with -es:
Apple / apples
Banana / bananas
Cat / cats
Class / classes
Iris / irises
Lens / lenses
Daisy (the name) – Daisys
Daisy (the flower) – Daisies
1920 / 1920s
Apostrophe / apostrophes
With the plural of a family name, you just add an –s. It’s the Brandreths, the Kardashians and the Trumps, you need to keep up with, never the Brandreth’s, the Kardashian’s or the Trump’s. When the family name ends with s, x, z, ch or sh, you do NOT add an apostrophe: you add –es, keeping up with the Joneses, the Fairfaxes, the Rodriguezes, the Norwiches and the Bushes.
The tiny exception to this no-apostrophes-with-plurals rule comes in the case of single letters and single numbers if adding an apostrophe aids clarity. ‘I’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts’ looks wrong and reads confusingly, so ‘I’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s’ is allowed. The same goes for ‘Mind your p’s and q’s’, but only because ‘ps’ could be misinterpreted as an abbreviation of ‘postscript’.
The misplaced apostrophe is sometimes called the ‘Grocer’s apostrophe’ because of the frequency with which it is allegedly seen on signs in grocers’ shops advertising ‘Potato’s’, ‘Tomato’s’ and ‘Runner bean’s’. To me, quite as annoying as the misplaced apostrophe is the missing apostrophe. At the 2018 Oscars’ ceremony in Los Angeles, Emma Watson, the British actress, star of the Harry Potter films, and English Literature graduate of Brown University, wanted to signal her support for the post-Weinsten #MeToo Time’s Up campaign to end sexual harassment in the movie industry. She chose to do so by sporting a sizeable tattoo on the inside of her left arm. It read ‘Times Up’ – without an apostrophe.
I go into this is rather more detail in my book, Have You Eaten Grandma? If you can’t find it in your local bookshop, you can order it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Have-Eaten-Grandma-Gyles-Brandreth/dp/0241352630/