Tag Archives: apostrophes


7 Feb

Why do people find apostrophes so difficult?

On 17 January, it was reported that the City council of Cambridge (of all places) had banned punctuation from new street names on the basis that it “could lead to mistakes, especially for emergency services”. Birmingham had banned them, in 2009, as had mid-Devon, in 2013. Yesterday it was reported that Cambridge had reversed its decision, but I guess the others will not.

Far from causing confusion, apostrophes remove it: using as an example the old chestnut of “the girls books”, without an apostrophe how would you know whether that was one girl who had many books (the girl’s books), or more than one girl who each had some books (the girls’ books)?

Apostrophes can give added information. For example, “his sisters’ children” immediately tells you that the “he” has more than one sister, “the hen’s eggs” that one hen has laid more than one egg.

It’s hard to know which is worse, however: omitting apostrophes, or inserting them in plurals where they don’t belong?

There’s a workshop near King’s Cross, London, that makes “cabinet’s” and “book case’s”….and an (official) road sign nearby that reads “NO LEFT TURN EXCEPT TAXIS’s” – and how often do you see apostrophes in decades: “1990’s” instead of “1990s”?  While this seems to be “correct” grammar in the US, the reason is beyond understanding. If you were to write out 1990s, you wouldn’t write the nineteen ninetie’s.

Then there’s the general panic about what to do if a word or name ends in “s”. This results in “St Thomas’ Hospital” rather than as it should be, “St Thomas’s Hospital” – no-one would write “St Bartholomew’ Hospital”, so why St Thomas’?

Finally, there’s the trap of “its” and “it’s”. “It’s” is one of the cases where an apostrophe has been used to denote missing letters (like “aren’t” – are not – and “wasn’t” – was not). “It’s” means “it is” (it’s going to rain today, it’s my birthday next week); “its” is a possessive, just like “his” or “hers”.

The following extract from the Economist Style Guide sets out the use of apostrophes very clearly:

Use the normal possessive ending ’s after singular words or names that end in s: boss’s, caucus’s, St James’s. Use it after plurals that do not end in s: children’s. Frenchmen’s, media’s.

Use the ending s’ on plurals that end in s – Danes’, bosses’, Joneses’ – including plural names that take a singular verb, eg, Reuters’, Barclays’.

Peoples’ = of peoples, People’s = of the people.

Do not put apostrophes into decades: the 1990s not the 1990’s.

All clear now?