The English Language evolves. It moves with the times. Writers and others are constantly bending the language, adding new words, and creating new forms: ‘How very dare they?’
But can punctuation be adapted at will, in any circumstance? Have apostrophes had their day? Why, there’s even a website named killtheapostrophe (please don’t google it).
I am prompted to write this diatribe (sorry, objective and calmly argued opinion piece …) by the recent redecoration of the façade of our local bookshop. I noticed it while driving to the railway station the other day and I was saddened to be reminded that four years ago – almost to the day – Waterstone’s decided that it would be ‘a more versatile and practical’ spelling of their company name if the apostrophe were dropped. The façade now reads Waterstones.
Now I actually don’t mind too much in the case of a company name (think Toys’R’Us, revenues $12.4bn …). But in general writing, and certainly in the worlds of publishing and editing, I would argue, the apostrophe should be protected, defended, safeguarded.
My position is not one of grammatical pedantry or Luddism, for I am a firm believer in allowing the language to develop, to adapt, and to reflect the societies in which it is used. It is simply that if apostrophes are not used in the standard manner, then readers are quite likely to get the wrong end of the stick, which helps no one.
A simple example – albeit one that appears to condone polygamy – comes from Kingsley Amis:
Those things are my husband’s [i.e. Those things belong to my husband]
Those things are my husbands’ [i.e. Those things belong to several husbands of mine]
Those things are my husbands. [I’m married to those men].
The position of an apostrophe can change the meaning completely:
We should preserve the people’s customs.
We should preserve the peoples’ customs.
In many such cases (not all, I admit) apostrophes clarify and they render unambiguous. And by doing so they allow a reader to follow a writer’s train accurately and seamlessly, without confusion, pause or interruption.
Some people do get in a muddle with apostrophes. I was, perhaps, lucky to have a very straight-forward and articulate English teacher at Glenbervie Primary School, for it was he, Mr Alastair McCorquodale (splendid Scottish name), who taught me all I needed to know about apostrophes. ‘It’s very simple,’ he said, ‘you use an apostrophe when you omit some letters, as in don’t or shouldn’t, or you use one to indicate the possessive case, as in a soldier’s uniform. … That’s it. All you need to know.’
Perhaps, of course, we can allow occasional lapses? I wouldn’t want to upbraid greengrocers every time I see their advertisements for courgette’s or banana’s. This has become part of the national culture, an error so deeply ingrained that it would be a great shame to lose it. (By the way, I think the nicest example I have ever seen of the stallholder’s art was at a Lancashire market around 1983, where one confectioner was doing a roaring trade in Mar’s Bar’s.)
Inserting apostrophes in simple plurals is nothing new. People have been making this particular mistake for centuries. In Kendal in 1806, for example, an advertisement in the local newspaper tells us that one James Newby had recently set up a shop ‘where he Makes, Sells and Repairs all kinds Of Watch’s & Clock’s … and sells all sorts of Gold, Silver Plate &c. &c. in the Newest Fashion’s …’
So, the apostrophe is, and has long been, a character misused, misplaced and misunderstood. Does this really matter now, any more than in Kendal in 1806?
I believe it does matter. Having been an editor and publisher for the majority of my years since leaving Glenbervie I believe that ‘incorrect’ (I prefer the term ‘non-standard’) punctuation can say a lot about a writer. I do know, for instance, that when interviewing candidates for publishing jobs it’s one of the things that recruiters notice. It might not be crucial to their decision, but they do notice.
So if you work with words, or if you’re in publishing … if you aspire to become an editor, or if you’re writing an application letter for a new job … if you’re composing a report for your new boss, or even if you’re updating your social media profile, I think it is worth taking the trouble to check that your apostrophes are all present and correct.
Thank you, Mr McCorquodale. And, please, let’s hear no more about the redundancy of apostrophes.