Apostrophes are commonly misused. This attracts pedantic sarcasm, which is unhelpful, and pedantic invective, which is unpleasant. Sentence first will supply neither, but a forthcoming post will take a closer look at punctuation mockery.
Nor will I write in detail about how to use apostrophes correctly (not today, anyway); countless books and websites provide this information, yet confusion continues unabated. Before you read further, you might want to visit my earlier post on the subject. It’s shorter than this one.
Surveying the scene we see widespread addition, omission, and misplacement: contemporary apostrophe usage is wayward and inconsistent. Ian Mayes, former readers editor at The Guardian, blames a mysterious creature called the apostrofly, which the newspaper’s style guide describes as “an insect that lands at random on the printed page, depositing an apostrophe wherever it lands”. Like this:
[cartoon by What the Duck]
It can be difficult to predict whether a place name requires an apostrophe – and, if it does, where to put it. The mark’s placement in Queen’s College, Belfast does not correlate with that in Queens’ College, Cambridge, because the latter college was named after two queens. If you didn’t know this, you’re unlikely to guess. If your name is Harker and you adopt it eponymously for your business, is it Harkers, Harker’s, or Harkers’? Well, that depends. Harkers’ is wrong unless you want to indicate a family business, in which case you can expect regular mistakes. Standard English traditionally requires the mark before a possessive s, thus Harker’s, and this is the form I recommend. But the same caveat applies.
There is a trend towards removing apostrophes from business names and place names. This trend may be unstoppable, though it is of course censured by the Apostrophe Protection Society, among others. Confusion and brand simplification are among the reasons for the mark’s gradual disappearance from these domains. A spokesperson for Barclays Bank said of the missing apostrophe: “It has just disappeared over the years. Barclays is no longer associated with the family name.”
Current usage is thoroughly mixed. We have Currys but Sainsbury’s; Dunnes Stores but Supermac’s; Fyffes Bananas but Barry’s Tea; Ballinteer St Johns but St John’s Wood (though not always); Land’s End and Martha’s Vineyard but Toms River and Earls Court. An added complication is that in some cases (e.g. Earls in Earls Court) the -s noun may be a plural noun used attributively, i.e. acting as an adjective and therefore in no need of an apostrophe.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names advises against possessive apostrophes (#1 and #18 here), and there are persuasive arguments for standardisation. Lorraine Woodward has done interesting research into apostrophe use in supermarket names, and into a related phenomenon that she calls the “s-form”, where a superfluous s is added to a supermarket name (e.g. Tesco’s).
Traditionalists might decry this kind of non-standard usage, and cite the sanctity of grammar, but the English language did fine before incorporating the apostrophe, and some of its finest practitioners throughout history used apostrophes in ways that would be pilloried today.
I took these photos within a few minutes’ walk of one another (click for large size). Each demonstrates mixed use. While I don’t condone faulty and contradictory punctuation, I have no wish to ridicule or criticise these businesses and their signs. What constitutes apostrophe misuse is less clear-cut than you might suppose after visiting name-and-shame-type websites.
Bryan Garner, the lawyer and lexicographer who wrote the excellent A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, believes that increased literacy is the only cure for apostrophe misuse. Robert Burchfield, who edited the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and was not exactly an anarchic descriptivist, offered a contrary opinion in The English Language (1985):
The prevalence of incorrect instances of the use of the apostrophe at the present time, even in the work of otherwise reasonably well-educated people (e.g. it’s wings, apple’s for sale, this is your’s), together with the abandonment of it by many business firms (Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank) suggest that the time is close at hand when this moderately useful device should be abandoned.
Although I’m not calling for this to happen, I accept that confused apostrophe usage will be with us for a while yet. I’ll continue to write and edit text according to prevailing standards, but should the apostrophe be abandoned in my lifetime, there will be no emotional outbursts.
Languages change all the time, and this change does not derive from grammar books or academic institutions so much as from everyone who uses the language. For better or worse, deliberately or not, some businesses have adopted what seems to me a very Irish solution to the problem.
I’ve written about Waterstones officially dropping the apostrophe from its name, and why pedants’ outrage over this is pointless.