In praise of the humble apostrophe

This is a revised version of a piece that I originally posted, on the previous manifestation of In my own write, in March 2012. That post was entitled “Whose doing it? Your doing it. And its going to cause an argument”, which I thought was a reasonably witty way of drawing attention to the modern disease of misusing the apostrophe.

However, my attempt at humour, such as it was, backfired when a couple of people wrote to me. One pointed out that I had misused the apostrophe in my headline (don’t try to be witty, Martyn, it doesn’t work); the other said that it really didn’t matter as long as the reader understands the point being made – a stupid argument, to which I will return on another occasion.

My original post explained that I get really annoyed at the way in which our beautiful and versatile language is continually crippled by people who either don’t care, don’t know or don’t want to know how to use it properly. I love the fact that English is capable of radical change – look at the words Shakespeare invented, for example.

But change should not mean debasement, nor should it encourage the destruction of elements – such as the apostrophe - that make the language special. So I get really irritated when people abuse its use. For example, people who write “your” when they mean “you’re”, “whose” when they mean “who’s”, or “its” when they mean “it’s”. And these are just a few of the sins committed against this humble yet invaluable punctuation mark: there are plenty more.

The peerless journalist Keith Waterhouse claimed to have founded an Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe in the late 1980s – not, you will notice, the late 1980’s – through his column in the Daily Mail. He wrote regular diatribes against shopkeepers who sold “pound’s of apple’s” or “magazine’s, book’s and newspaper’s”; NHS trusts which displayed signs pointing to the “Childrens Ward”; and local authorities that had road signs for “St Pauls Close” or “Bowmans Road”.

Incidentally, I found that there really is an Apostrophe Protection Society, although in my opinion the website lacks both the wit and the fury which distinguished Keith Waterhouse’s columns. He shuffled off his mortal coil a few years ago, and is doubtless spinning in his grave at the continuing – and probably growing – numbers of apostrophic aberrations.

The point is that apostrophes are a very efficient way to clarify meaning – and they are not particularly difficult to use. The apostrophe has two main uses. One is to indicate a missing character or characters, and in these cases the correct way of spelling the words is clear from the meaning: “you’re” is a contraction of “you are”, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”, and “who’s” is a contraction of “who is”. No arguments, no exceptions, no special conditions.

The other use is to indicate possession: John’s car, Susan’s house, your mother’s mother. The correct use of the possessive apostrophe is also largely straightforward: in essence, it replaces the word “of”: the car of John, the house of Susan, the mother of your mother. There are a few complications. Plurals have the apostrophe after the “s” – the teams’ starting times means the starting times of two or more teams. And names that end in “s” can be the subject of argument – James’ friends or James’s friends is something that we could discuss for hours and not come to a conclusion about. Whatever: it’s still not that bloody complicated.

Oddly enough, what provoked me to write the original version of this were a couple of blog posts. OK, blogs are often notoriously badly written, but these particular ones were by professional freelance copywriters. At the time, I was looking to see what they were writing about, and if I could steal some ideas: there’s honesty for you. In fact, I couldn’t find anything – we do write some rubbish, don’t we? But the point is that in both blogs, I saw absolutely rage-inducing – in me, anyway – misuses of the apostrophe. Clearly it didn’t bother them nor, one assumes, their clients. But it sure as hell bothers me.

I am setting myself up as a hostage to fortune here – as I said, when I first posted a version of this, someone pointed out the “mistakes” in my supposedly witty title. I know that if I misuse an apostrophe in a subsequent post, I’ll be trolled all over the place. But I’ll take the slings and arrows, because I really do think it matters: if I get it wrong, I should be castigated. The apostrophe in all its uses is one of the best tools in the English language – providing it’s used properly.

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