Shashi Tharoor on the end of apostrophes
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
Last week, we looked at reports of the imminent extinction of the apostrophe, following the closure of the Apostrophe Protection Society, which has given up the fight to save this little-noticed but often-misused asset to the language.
Derived from the Late Latin apostrophus and the Greek apostrophos, signifying “turning away”, the word “apostrophe” first referred to an orator turning aside in the course of a speech to address someone briefly before returning to his audience. We also apostrophise when we address or appeal to someone who is not present — “Oh Mahatma Gandhi, where are you now when we really need you?” That too is called an apostrophe. But unless you are given to such overly dramatic flourishes, this form of apostrophe need not detain us much in this column.
We’ve been focusing instead on the apostrophe as a punctuation mark [ ‘ ] standing for a sign showing where a letter has been omitted in a word. We’ve considered a lot of examples where the apostrophe helps clarify meaning, permits contraction and helps with disambiguation.
In addition to what we wrote last week, writers can use the apostrophe to represent a particular style of speech. They might write somethin’ to convey the speech of people who don’t pronounce the final g of the word “something”. And in places like the American South or the Bombay in which I grew up, the apostrophe does duty in the local patois, “y’all” (a contraction of “you all”). My Anglo-Indian friends in that city were much given to asking “How’re y’all, men?” — which charming expression simply cannot be rendered without the apostrophe!
However, as grammarians and rhetoricians will tell you, that is not all. The apostrophe comes in handy to make your meaning precise. For instance, if you wrote “Abdul and Ismail’s restaurants”, the placing of the apostrophe makes it clear that Abdul and Ismail own several restaurants together; but if you wrote “Abdul’s and Ismail’s restaurants”, it means you are speaking about restaurants that Abdul and Ismail each own separately. Thus the apostrophe is one of the more indispensable elements of language, since its absence can provide a wholly different meaning to what you intended to say. (Check out Kingsley Amis’ examples last week).
On the other hand, when it’s not needed, don’t use it. The British speak ruefully of the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, an error made particularly in signs on grocery stores saying “banana’s by the dozen”, “carrot’s for sale”, and so unnecessarily on. But what can one do about the retail trade when chains have inflicted such howlers on the world as “Toys ‘R’ Us” and other examples of punctuation as decoration, rather than conveying any meaning?
Similarly, apostrophes should not be used for the plurals of letters referring to examination grades — “She scored all As”, not “She scored all A’s”. Nor is there any need for an apostrophe when you wish to convey the plurals of abbreviations containing capital letters: “This job vacancy attracted a lot of applicants with MAs and PhDs” is correct, not “MA’s and PhD’s”.
Opponents of the apostrophe have pointed to the maddening inconsistency of its use in everyday life. Take just one common name found in many British cities. While Newcastle United play football at a stadium called St James’ Park, Exeter City play at St James Park (no apostrophe), and London has a St James’s Park (apostrophe plus second s), though it really is a park and not a football stadium!
Many have suggested that apostrophes ought to be abandoned altogether, as the department store Harrods has done but the grocery chain Sainsbury’s have refused to. The argument is that they are superfluous, and the meaning is evident to most people with or without it. This “apostrophe apostasy” is not new: George Bernard Shaw called them “uncouth bacilli”, and many linguists have argued that apostrophes are unnecessary. But as I have tried to explain over this pair of columns, that is simply not true.
They may have begun to go out of fashion, as the Apostrophe Society has concluded, but let’s still use them for the sake of clarity — at least till the world exclaims: “it’s time’s up for the apostrophe!”