The apostrophe

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

The apostrophe

G V Carey in Mind The Stop (1958), “I have now dealt with all the stops except the APOSTROPHE, which I mention merely in order that it may not feel neglected.” He gives about half a page to its elucidation and ends up, “Would that all stops gave so little trouble!”

R L Trask who devotes a chapter to the apostrophe in The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997) takes a different view, “The apostrophe (’) is the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful. No other punctuation mark causes so much bewilderment, or is so often misused . . . and it is a blunt fact that the incorrect use of apostrophes will make your writing look illiterate more quickly than almost any other kind of mistake.”

Kingsley Amis in The King’s English (1997), “The rules governing the use of this vexing little mark are obviously hard to master, and if you have any trouble with them or it after the age of fourteen or so, the chances are that you will always be liable to error in the matter.”

Perhaps Kingsley Amis is right about people who were taught the rules but failed to learn them. However, it is more likely that many of those who do not know the rules were never taught them. In the seventies, the teaching of punctuation went out of favour in some schools.

Familiarity with the three numbered paragraphs below (from The King’s English) will make a person’s knowledge of the apostrophe exceed the national average:

2. With singular words in the possessive case add ’s even when the word itself sends in S, as Jack’s bike, the water’s edge, Gus’s buttonhole. (A plain apostrophe is added to some words, as in for Jesus’ sake, Keats’ poems, but when in doubt always write the fuller version.)

3. With plural words that end in S just add an apostrophe, as ladies’ room, the Smiths’ car.

4. With plural words that do not end in S, add ’s as the men’s room, the people’s candidate.

Many people do know how to use the apostrophe at this level because these rules are quite easy to apply. Therefore when other people fail to apply them, they may be perceived to be illiterate. But the misuse of the comma, semicolon, colon and full stop is less likely to attract the same opprobrium because the rules governing these marks are harder to grasp, and also leave more scope for personal taste:

“I should define punctuation as being governed two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste.” (G V Carey)


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