Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.


Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.


Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.

Inkhorns in the past, apostrophes in the future

February 2, 2012

I have two new posts up on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, The fashion for inkhorn terms, continues the discussion of plain English (the blog’s theme for December and January) and looks at some of the reasons language can fail to achieve its main purpose: communication.

In particular, I look at the once-popular ornate style of writing that

combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English. . . .

In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”. But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English . . .

Read on for examples of inkhorn terms that survived and ones that faded.

Next, Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial changes to a company’s style, and I ponder what the future might hold for this troublesome punctuation mark:

Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation . . . .

We may see a trend towards using [the apostrophe] less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint.

This post prompted some fascinating comments, which you can read here. If you’d like to browse my older posts at Macmillan, you can go straight to the archive.

Apostrophes in business names and place names

April 2, 2009

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.

Stan Carey - apostrophe collage, Galway

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, author of 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, 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.

The strange case of the disappearing apostrophes

February 4, 2009

In grammar news from across the Irish Sea, Birmingham city council has decided to phase out the apostrophe from its street signs and place names. Apparently this has been going on for decades, but only recently was it made official. It happens in my town too:

Stan Carey - St. Paul's Road apostrophe

Erratic and missing apostrophes abound in display writing and unedited writing, such as in shop signs, handwritten notices and internet blogs. A couple of weeks ago I saw a block of cheese in a shop with the incorrect plural cheese’s – the notorious greengrocer’s apostrophe – typed on the packaging.

The overwhelming majority who voted in the online poll in the Birmingham Post are in favour of retaining the apostrophe (and, presumably, removing it if it doesn’t belong). This is unsurprising.

It’s not a difficult punctuation mark to learn to use properly, but it evidently presents widespread difficulty and probably always has done. The official guidelines on apostrophe use are current conventions rather than eternal rules, and they have changed considerably since the apostrophe’s introduction to English in the sixteenth century.

Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson all used what would now be considered errant apostrophes, presumably without raising too many contemporary eyebrows. George Bernard Shaw, who raised many an eyebrow, referred to them as “uncouth bacilli” and tended to avoid using them at all. In 1985, the renowned lexicographer Robert Burchfield said:

The apostrophe was only a moderately successful device, and it is probably coming to the end of its usefulness, certainly for forming plurals and marking possession. It may only be retained for contractions.

Don’t presume that this gets you off the hook though – better to understand and apply the current guidelines than to use and abuse the mark haphazardly.

Whose only passive

October 29, 2019

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.

Getting ratioed for your bad take

November 16, 2017

Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.

Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):

Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.

And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter. (If you’ve seen it elsewhere, let me know.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Tips from professional proofreaders

December 15, 2014

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of Copyediting.com, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From: http://50watts.com/Fantastic-Plangent