APOSTROPH’.

That’s how we should be pronouncing apostrophe, according to the OED: “It ought to be of three syllables in Eng. as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with the prec. word”—the prec. word being apostrophe ‘A figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent; an exclamatory address.’ The name of the punctuation mark, you see, is not from Greek/Latin apostrophê (which would justify the extra syllable) but (via French apostrophe—three syllables!) from Latin apostrophus, itself from Greek (hê) apóstrophos (sc. prosôdia the accent) ‘of turning away, or elision.’ So there’s no earthly reason to say “apostro-fee,” and yet we do anyway, perverse creatures that we are. Why don’t all the preservers of the purity of English take up this cause, now that they realize the error of everyone’s ways? I’d like to hear William F. Buckley lean back in his inimitable way and denounce “the illiterate use of apostroffs in plurals.”
But of course that’s a fantasy; the preservers ignore the ahistorical pronunciation and focus on that damnable plural use. In fact, according to the latest lament for the apostrophe, a Telegraph article by Matt Born, the “‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’—so-called because of shopkeepers’ propensity to display signs for ‘pear’s’ or ‘banana’s'” is the object of ever-increasing angst; it’s spreading so fast that “it threatens to undermine what has long been a strict rule of grammar.” Worst of all, “over time it may become acceptable.” I leave to the imagination the horrors that such an outcome would unleash upon an already suffering world.


But wait: what does the OED say in small type, there at the end of definition 2 (“The sign (‘) used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters… and as a sign of the modern English genitive or possessive case”)? It says… it says…

In the latter case, it originally marked merely the omission of e in writing, as in fox’s, James’s, and was equally common in the nominative plural, esp. of proper names and foreign words (as folio’s = folioes); it was gradually disused in the latter, and extended to all possessives, even where e had not been previously written, as in man’s, children’s, conscience’ sake. [Emphasis added.]

Why, that means that the apostrophe was originally, and thus properly, used in the plural; those greengrocers are right, and the Apostrophe Protection Society is wrong! Surely the Williams (Buckley and Safire) and the other preservers will lay off the ancient plural apostrophe and begin working on excising that excrescent final syllable. (OED citations and links to article and Society courtesy of The Discouraging Word, which should not be held responsible for the puckishly antinomian stance taken by this website.)

Comments

  1. Trenchant and devilishly backed up with the etymological fine print, but still: I have to admit that the inverted comma just gets under my skin when used to form plural’s. I agree that it probably doesn’t mean the culture is falling apart any more rapidly than the existence of, say, Access Hollywood already indicates. But it rubs my fur the wrong way, every time.

  2. But what about the dreaded Acronymist’s Apostrophe?

  3. That post was very fun to read. I’m always up for a taking Safire down a notch… but Buckley too? A bonanza!

  4. Exactly! Well done! I’ve always jocularly refered to the mislaid apostroff — sounds like the pretender to the Czarist throne — in speech. Damn mine eyes, I was right. Keep up the fine entries.

  5. I wanted to name my daughter “(prinsess) Apostrophe Tilde von Bladet”, but it turned out I don’t have a daughter.

  6. Uh, using the apostrophe exclusively to indicate possessive or genitive usage aids clarity in writing, and thus should be encouraged. Sure, going into hysterics over any other usage is silly, but the principle is sound.

  7. BT: Sure it does, and it rubs mine the wrong way too. Anyone who’s painfully learned the proper usages at the feet of Miss Throttlebottom in the early years of education (they do, after all, call it “grammar school”) can’t help but wince when they see them wantonly flouted. The point (and it’s one that I keep trying to make here at my tiny soapbox) is that those feelings, natural as they are, have nothing to do with historical truth, let alone with the Good and the Beautiful. It’s just like having a fondness for bananas because you grew up eating them, or hating (as I do) to see the sign change from PAN AM to MET LIFE at the top of that large ugly building that looms over Grand Central. It’s not the emotions that bother me, it’s the need to justify them by specious historico-logical reasoning, which leads to unnecessary snobbish condemnation of those who don’t follow the same usage.
    Aidan: Please. If you’ll give it a moment’s thought, you’ll see that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if the apostrophe didn’t exist at all. You can’t hear it, after all, and yet we somehow manage to communicate orally. There is no “principle.” It’s pure conservatism, wanting to go on as we began and keep the forms we’re used to. That’s fine with me (I’m conservative by nature), I just don’t like it gussied up with elitist nonsense.

  8. i imagine the apo’strophe will become part
    of the letter S within a hundred year’s
    (even in name’s).
    your’s in the united ‘state’s,
    m.

  9. Heh. Yeah, the apostrophe is the bane of the language purists here too, because in German it seems to become more popular to introduce apostrophes into possessive forms in names like you do in English, when in German there is supposed to be no apostrophe there. You are only supposed to but an apostrophe there if the name already ends with an “s” sound (like s, z, ß, tz, x etc), yet lots of people seem to like the “look” with the extra apostrophe between the name and the s. Of course apostrophes get sometimes randomly inserted into plural forms as well, something which those who bemoan the extra apostrophe (when it’s merely used like in English) as a sure sign of the end times for the German language, find even more awful.

  10. I can’t comment (famous as I am in certain circles for my persnickety grammar and punctuation and typography rants, usually followed by, “Um, Kip? I think you split an infinitive in that, and misused an en-dash, and your kerning on that one title seriously needs work,” so), but I will share my absolute favorite (?) misuse of the apostroph’, as seen printed on the back of a truck delivering something or other:

    Its’ the best!

    But can we bitch about people who turn Smart Quotes™ on without thinking and then use the open-single-quote – ‘ – when they mean to use the apostrophe? When something’s been elided from the beginning of something, like hacking the “20″ or “19″ off a year, say, or when they type “‘cause” when they mean “’cause”? ’Cause that really sticks in my persnickety craw.

  11. Yes, we certainly can. In my other life as a mild-mannered editor, I have to deal with smart and dumb quotes and apostroffs constantly, and it drives me mad, mad I tell you. (Or at least causes my manners to unmild.)

  12. LH: Please. If you’ll give it a moment’s thought, you’ll see that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if the apostrophe didn’t exist at all.
    Really? Okay, if you don’t mind, I’m going to take an analogous example from French, because as a second language it’s one I’ve had to think about in depth (detail-wise) more recently. Would it make a bit of difference if “cette” were written exactly the same as “sept”? I submit that it would; useful constructions along the lines of « A sept heure, on voit souvent de touristes qui se promènent par là. » become as useless as they are in the spoken language.
    Written language is often used to express shades of meaning that are more considered and more rich than those of spoken language–there’s nothing wrong with that, it equally takes more time to prepare and is often examined more closely than its spoken counterpart. It also doesn’t have any body language or tone of voice cues. The more accepted customs it has, the more redundancy of information there is, the easier it is to follow what is meant. And as it becomes easier to follow what is meant, it becomes easier to express subtle distinctions and shifts in emphasis. Communication is easy. Meaning is clear. These are good things, and should be encouraged.
    And as to the elitism accusation; I’m from the country of Finnegans Wake. One of the few regular newspapers (newspapers!) we got in my house growing up was the Farmers Journal. I look across the street from here and I see two signs for the one establishment, one saying “Gallagher’s Restaurant,” and the other “Gallaghers Restaurant.” I only started using the apostrophe consistently myself in the early years of college. I love where I’m from. I don’t consider someone less intelligent if they get it wrong; I meet too many manifestly smart people of that ilk every day to do that. I do think clarity and accuracy of communication make the world easier for everyone, though.

  13. Aidan: Sorry, didn’t mean to come off as accusing you of elitism—it’s just my reflex response to the cry of “write it right!” And obviously I was exaggerating when I said it wouldn’t make a bit of difference; clearly it would make some difference. My point was simply that people are so used to the rules they know that they exaggerate their importance and usefulness. The capital letter for nouns in German is useful too, in a marginal sort of way, but it seems clear to me that German wouldn’t really lose anything but tradition by eliminating them. (The elimination of Chinese characters, on the other hand, would entail much more serious losses.)
    Again, I’m not opposing the rules as such (I make my living from them, after all), just poking a little fun at those who take them too seriously. And I certainly agree with your final statement.

  14. Interesting that nobody else has pointed this out: the emphasised expression in the OP is a little misleading, because the passage as a whole seems to indicate that the apostrophe wasn’t used for *all* nominative plurals, but just for those that normally ended in “es” (and even then only when the ‘e’ was omitted). Most times when I see people trying to put an apostrophe on a plural, it’s not to replace a missing ‘e’….

  15. dungbeetle says:

    “-’-” wow for such a poor little scribble, it do upset so many Academians.(note c). The L.A. Times had a columnist on the rampage about that itty bitty mark. When an action makes it easier to be lazier and at the same time increases the profit of the organisations that can benefit form this fundamental weakness of the human spirit. The mark was used to save money by those early printers when every letter was set by hand (lead cost money too, and ran out of vowels) and the space savings on folio paper was tremendous. Make sense’ to be lazy after all it, one must save time and energy of the printer and typist .other short cut was the ” &” amphersand, .Note: Time is money . If you want to make One’s work to be meaningful and understandable then put in the “of the” not the B*****” A*********. I mean one gets upset over that mark when no one does when the the New York Subway banned” please and thank you ” because it saved so much time and money. As for the the “infamous nineteen” ‘Twas omitted because memory in the 60′s and 70′ cost a dollar a bit and the savings in memory was humungeous 16 bits or 32 bits ’twas astronomical. Now you get 1 Gig of memory for a dollar, Of course the typist does save time unless they have to look up the rule to see if they do not upset the purists (sorry Pure of mind)

  16. Don–initially ‘s for possessives was only used to replace e in -es genetives, too, though. So if the possessive construction eventually spread to encompass all possessives, why not the plural construction? :-)

  17. As for the apostrophe versus single-quotation mark problem, my software chooses for me. Not only that, but my word-processing software chooses one way, and my web-editing software chooses the other way, and sometimes I cut and paste from the former to the latter, producing a mixed result. So cut me an effing break, willya?
    I also sometimes knowingly use the apostrophe wrongly for plurals. Somehow transliterations of Chinese words don’t look right when pluralized with “s”. So if you are talking about tes, lis, and shus (correct), somehow it works better if you write about te’s, li’s, and shu’s (incorrect).

  18. > .other short cut was the ” &” amphersand, .Note: Time is money
    The ampersand may have been designed to save time and space (et in the form of a ligature) but I love the way that it scored such a long name:
    The word ampersand is a conflation (combination) of “and, per se and”. Per se means “by itself”, and so the phrase translates to “&, standing by itself, means ‘and’”. This was at the end of the alphabet as it was recited by children in old English schools. The words ran together and were associated with “&”. The “ampersand” spelling dates from 1837. — HyperDictionary

  19. So how are we supposed to be pronouncing apostrophe? aPOStroph or apoSTROPH?

  20. dungbeetle says:

    Not being a scolar; I do note that there was a symbol used in the 17C[entury] that had the appearance of “&” wot{what} was it called at that period of time? also the Diary of John Evelyn dosed up the entries with “&” and lopped of endings of popular words like Colonel as Coll: , Bro: Jack etc., he put ‘d for ed or or ommitt’d the “thing” all to gether (din’d with,Martyr’d or dind sometimes din[e]d) then save more space do writ’ ” L. Marq: of Ormond &c.” Or was this E.S. de Beer version of Evelyns Kalendararium.
    (this input does not accept upper case comma or upper case period). I will leave the Original reading of the manuscript to the Experts.

  21. srah, dungbeetle: Good questions both. I imagine the pronunciation would have begun as apoSTROF (direct from French) and changed to aPOStrof if it had stayed a trisyllable; compare Trafalgar, which began as trafalGAR. And I too am curious about what the & symbol was called before the oh-so-cute and-per-se-and nomenclature; simply “et” perhaps (as still called by proofreaders reading aloud)? I googled “history of the ampersand” and got only a poem by Norman Dubie containing the lines “His history of the ampersand/ as clear Sanskrit drool….”—which doesn’t really help. It’s quite a nice poem, though, full of Khandro and tigers eating cellists and “cadets in their basaltic wilderness” and “birds crying:/ né-too vic, né-too vic,/ the six syllables like a butcher’s knives” and the Port of Gommed-Kyi-Pnalbyorh and the Plain of Jars and good stuff like that. The rewards of serendipity.

  22. For the record, srah and LH, the Germans say Apostroph – just like they spell it :-)

  23. The apostrophe usage that annoys me most is when it’s used as if it were the same thing as all French accents at once. I once knew a girl whose legal name was “Renee’”.
    There’s a hair salon in Northeast PA called “La’ Belle Vous”. This not only makes the assumption that the French word “la” has an accent on it (or that it can be made more exotic by adding an accent), but it also makes the assumption that a word is just as French and exotic with an apostrophe in place of the accent.

  24. [Posted by: RatC at August 22, 2003 09:59 AM]
    I can’t comment (famous as I am in certain circles for my persnickety grammar and punctuation and typography rants, usually followed by, “Um, Kip? I think you split an infinitive in that, and misused an en-dash, and your kerning on that one title seriously needs work,” so), but I will share my absolute favorite (?) misuse of the apostroph’, as seen printed on the back of a truck delivering something or other:
    Its’ the best!
    But can we bitch about people who turn Smart Quotes™ on without thinking and then use the open-single-quote – ‘ – when they mean to use the apostrophe? When something’s been elided from the beginning of something, like hacking the “20″ or “19″ off a year, say, or when they type “‘cause” when they mean “’cause”? ’Cause that really sticks in my persnickety craw.
    RatC, ICAM. It really irks me when people write ‘‘tis’ when correctly it should be spelled ‘’tis’, with the apostroph pointing toward the chopped letter. Following such a rule, it’s incorrect to write ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to you you!’, but rather ‘Top o‘ the mornin‘ to you!’ IS.
    [Posted by: Chris at August 22, 2003 10:30 PM]
    As for the apostrophe versus single-quotation mark problem, my software chooses for me. Not only that, but my word-processing software chooses one way, and my web-editing software chooses the other way, and sometimes I cut and paste from the former to the latter, producing a mixed result. So cut me an effing break, willya?
    I also sometimes knowingly use the apostrophe wrongly for plurals. Somehow transliterations of Chinese words don’t look right when pluralized with “s”. So if you are talking about tes, lis, and shus (correct), somehow it works better if you write about te’s, li’s, and shu’s (incorrect).
    I agree, Chris.
    [Posted by: dungbeetle at August 23, 2003 05:14 PM]
    srah, dungbeetle: Good questions both. I imagine the pronunciation would have begun as apoSTROF (direct from French) and changed to aPOStrof if it had stayed a trisyllable; compare Trafalgar, which began as trafalGAR. And I too am curious about what the & symbol was called before the oh-so-cute and-per-se-and nomenclature; simply “et” perhaps (as still called by proofreaders reading aloud)? I googled “history of the ampersand” and got only a poem by Norman Dubie containing the lines “His history of the ampersand/ as clear Sanskrit drool….”—which doesn’t really help. It’s quite a nice poem, though, full of Khandro and tigers eating cellists and “cadets in their basaltic wilderness” and “birds crying:/ né-too vic, né-too vic,/ the six syllables like a butcher’s knives” and the Port of Gommed-Kyi-Pnalbyorh and the Plain of Jars and good stuff like that. The rewards of serendipity.
    I came upon THIS site by Googling ‘ampersand’ o_O. But.. I don’t care how it got it’s name, it’s still short for ‘Et’ meaning ‘and’ even if it’s been fancied up.

  25. Oh, sorry –quoted the wrong people. I don’t like the spacing on this page, personally..

  26. I took the liberty of editing your comment to put the quoted material in italics and the misleading “Posted by” lines (which, as you discovered, go to the preceding comments) in brackets; hopefully this will make your comment easier to figure out.

  27. Now, I’m mystified by this:
    “It really irks me when people write ‘‘tis’ when correctly it should be spelled ‘’tis’, with the apostroph pointing toward the chopped letter. Following such a rule, it’s incorrect to write ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to you you!’, but rather ‘Top o‘ the mornin‘ to you!’ IS.”
    Certainly “’tis” is what we’d want, but how is it illuminating to say that the apostrophe is “pointing to the chopped letter”? In the nature of the case, the chopped letter is absent, and to point to it would require a good deal more diacritic digit-waggling than any punctuation mark is capable of. And if the position vacated by the absent letter is to be pointed to, it could be pointed to from either side, with either ‘ or ’.
    The simple fact of the matter is that the “directed” or “turned” apostrophe has, for all practical purposes, the form of a closing single quote as opposed to the form of an opening single quote. It’s just that some well-known word-processors understandably lack the AI to distinguish the apostrophe in “’tis”, for example, from an opening quote. Of course, in practice that problem is a mere inconvenience that is easily overcome.
    None of the above applies to the mark in “M‘Naghten”, which is traditionally so executed, though the word is commonly rendered “M’Naghten” these days.

  28. Now, I’m mystified by this:
    “It really irks me when people write ‘‘tis’ when correctly it should be spelled ‘’tis’, with the apostroph pointing toward the chopped letter. Following such a rule, it’s incorrect to write ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to you you!’, but rather ‘Top o‘ the mornin‘ to you!’ IS.”
    Certainly “’tis” is what we’d want, but how is it illuminating to say that the apostrophe is “pointing to the chopped letter”? In the nature of the case, the chopped letter is absent, and to point to it would require a good deal more diacritic digit-waggling than any punctuation mark is capable of. And if the position vacated by the absent letter is to be pointed to, it could be pointed to from either side, with either ‘ or ’.
    The simple fact of the matter is that the “directed” or “turned” apostrophe has, for all practical purposes, the form of a closing single quote as opposed to the form of an opening single quote. It’s just that some well-known word-processors understandably lack the AI to distinguish the apostrophe in “’tis”, for example, from an opening quote. Of course, in practice that problem is a mere inconvenience that is easily overcome.
    None of the above applies to the mark in “M‘Naghten”, which is traditionally so executed, though the word is commonly rendered “M’Naghten” these days.

    Posted by Noetica at March 22, 2005 04:19 PM
    I know that.. Obviously, it’s not, ”Finally she awoke from her deep sleep.“, but instead, “Finally she awoke from her deep sleep.” OR “Finally she awoke from her deep sleep.”, with two equal ‘dumb’ quotes; that I do not contest.
    However, I am thuroughly bewildered, as to who or what is ‘M‘Naghten’ is.. Well, mind sharing?? :~)
    Also,.. Isn’t it only the slightest bit odd that the dates for which this URL page people posted their notes was all within the year of 2003, even more precisely within April of that year, but that NOW – on the twenty-second day of March A.D.2005 – all of a sudden two more people leave a note??

  29. “Finally she awoke from her deep sleep.” « my fault.

  30. Victor: The M‘Naghten rules have been the basis of the insanity plea in English law for over 150 years. (Not to tell my grandmother how to suck eggs, but googling the name would have instantly gotten you that information.) And there’s no mystery about the sudden activity; your comment showed up in the “Recently commented on” section of the sidebar, so I found and responded to it, and my response kept the entry on the sidebar, where Noetica presumably found it.
    A point of etiquette: It’s not very helpful to copy an entire comment — just copy the bits you’re responding to, and it helps to put them in italics (put an i in angle brackets before, and /i in angle brackets after). In this case, since you were responding to the comment immediately preceding, there was really no need to quote it; you could have just said “I know that,” and it would have been clear what you were responding to.

  31. language hatL
    Actually, I did Google it before I asked, and didn’t find it.. so, yea. And as far as etiquette goes, I was doing what I saw showed the most clarity. At any rate..

  32. Ahmet Guven says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am writing a paper about Turkish economy. There is a headline that goes “Share of EU Countries in Turkey’s Volume of Trade”. But would it be a mistake when I use it as “Share of EU Countries in Turkeys’ Volume of Trade”

  33. Yes it would, unless you’re talking about a flock of turkeys.

  34. Ahmet Guven says:

    Sorry but the name of my country is “Türkiye”. What if I write as “Share of EU Countries in
    Turkiyes’ Volume of Trade”. Would it still be a proper sentence that mentioning “Turkish Volume of Trade.

  35. The name of your country is Türkiye in Turkish but Turkey in English, just as the name of my country is the United States of America in English but Amerika Birleşik Devletleri in Turkish. It makes no more sense to put “Türkiye” in an English-language headline than it would to put “United States” in a Turkish one. If you’re writing in English, you need to use the English words for things. “Share of EU Countries in Turkey’s Volume of Trade” is fine.

  36. quoth zizka: Somehow transliterations of Chinese words don’t look right when pluralized with “s”. So if you are talking about tes, lis, and shus (correct), somehow it works better if you write about te’s, li’s, and shu’s (incorrect).
    One of my teachers resolved that dilemma (as to Sanskrit) with a middot: Kaurava·s.

  37. On yet another hand, why would you want to stick an explicit plural morpheme on a Chinese word?

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