Shashi Tharoor on apostrophes

Shashi Tharoor/Dubai
Filed on August 18, 2021

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

The closing of the Apostrophe Protection Society because of the ‘ignorance and laziness’ of the general public strikes a body blow against those fighting for correct English. After 18 years of existence, the British Apostrophe Protection Society was disbanded last year by its founder and chairman, retired journalist John Richards, because, in his words, “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won”. Despite his best efforts, he told the media, he lost the battle for proper usage of the “much abused” apostrophe.

The apostrophe [ ‘ ] was introduced into English in the 16th century in imitation of French practice; but just as English has dropped the various accent marks that still abound in French, some feel the apostrophe should be dispensed with as superfluous and unnecessary. According to Mr Roberts, they’re winning.

This humble punctuation mark is more often misunderstood and misused than any other. It stands for a mark showing where a letter has been omitted in a word. In English, the mark often stands in for “i”, as in “it’s” for “it is”, or indicates possession (“Modi’s government”), or marks contractions (“I’ll”, rather than “I will”, or “‘t’was” for “it was”). Sometimes, more disputably, it’s used for abbreviations, as in T’puram for Thiruvananthapuram, or to indicate the plurals of numbers (“three 7’s”), letters (“there are four s’s and two p’s in Mississippi”), symbols (“too many &’s and # ‘s”), acronyms (“mind your p’s and q’s”) or decadal dates (“he was stoned through most of the ‘70’s”).

The apostrophe as a punctuation mark poses ordinary users of English a number of problems. The most common is people’s tendency to use “it’s” when they mean “its” — a confusion arising, no doubt, from the assumption that the apostrophe is needed to indicate possession (but “its” is that curse of all grammar students, an exception). “It’s an exception” is correct, since “it’s” stands for “it is” in that sentence. But if you said “The problem with grammar is it’s exceptions” you’d be wrong, since here “its” is sufficient to relate to the exceptions.

Also on the list of challenges would be when the possessive use of the apostrophe involves a double s, as in “Jesus’s disciples”. Many prefer to leave the second s out altogether, and let the apostrophe do double duty in standing for both a possessive and an omitted letter, writing “Jesus’ disciples”. Other exceptions are generally made for familiar phrases like whys and wherefores, oohs and ahs, ins and outs.

Life gets really complicated when you’re dealing with a phrase like “do’s and don’ts”. The Oxford Style Guide suggests spelling it as “dos and don’ts”, which looks odd and inconsistent — and Lynne Truss, author of the delightful book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, argues for “do’s and don’t’s”. So there’s no unanimity on the do’s and don’ts of apostrophising.

A simple trick is to remember the exceptions: it’s is always “it is”, “who’s” is always “who is”, and the possessive forms are “its” and “whose”. Another is “won’t”, which is not a contraction of “will not” (then it would have to be “wi’n’t”) but of the archaic “woll not”, which means the same thing.

One clear rule of thumb could be to use apostrophes when not using them would obscure your meaning or even confuse your reader. This is because a function of the apostrophe is disambiguation (to make your meaning clear). For example, the phrase “dot your i’s and cross your t’s”. If you left out the apostrophe, it would become “dot your is and cross your ts”. Since “is” is a different word altogether, omitting the apostrophe would require your reader to pause and re-read the sentence to get the intended meaning. The rule of disambiguation makes it clear that if an apostrophe will avoid confusion, you should use it.

The usefulness of the apostrophe was made clear when the British novelist Kingsley Amis, challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with three versions of the same sentence:

“Those things over there are my husband’s.” (Those things over there belong to my husband.)

“Those things over there are my husbands’.” (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)

“Those things over there are my husbands.” (I’m married to those men over there.)

More on apostrophes next week!


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