Tag Archives: punctuation


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?


The “Oxford comma”

9 Jul

Following my blog on “Plurals, possessives and the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’”, one of my followers (probably tongue-in-cheek) suggested I write about the “Oxford comma”. I confess I had to look it up.

According to Oxford Dictionaries Online the Oxford comma
“…is an optional comma before the word ‘and’…It was traditionally used by printers, readers and editors at Oxford University Press. Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:
“The items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.”

I was taught at school never to put a comma before “and”, but since the purpose of all punctuation is to clarify the meaning of a sentence, I am a frequent user of the Oxford comma.

Look at the following bits of business-speak:

“Our business made good sales and progress and profits increased substantially.” A comma before the second “and”  (“Our business made good sales and progress, and profits increased substantially”) makes the meaning clear immediately.

“We enable manufacturers to test their products, to improve their quality, and to reduce their development time, and also enable them to tailor their products to meet individual needs.” Without the Oxford commas, this sentence would be unintelligible.

Think about what you want to write, read it carefully, and add commas – Oxford or otherwise – to make it readable. Although George Bernard Shaw said, “The Golden Rule is that there are no golden rules”, I think there is one here: it should never be necessary to read a sentence twice to understand it.

Today’s picture

It’s still raining. The only upside is that I don’t have to remember to water the garden, but we would love to see some blue sky. It was cold in Tibet, but the sky was an intense blue. This is me – as close to heaven as I’ll ever get – standing above the Ganden Monastery, outside Lhasa, at about the same altitude as Everest base camp.