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The apostrophe - a dog's dinner?

Ian Lacey | 15:27 UK time, Thursday, 13 November 2008

This week we learned that the apostrophe is the punctuation mark which causes most problems. IT firm SpinVox found nearly half of 2000 adults it tested were unable to use the apostrophe properly. The possessive plural was most misunderstood, with 46% thinking the example "people's choice" was wrong despite being correctly punctuated.

Unsurprisingly, teachers came top of the class in the test, with 80% getting full marks. Perhaps more surprisingly, especially given the comments on the Newsnight blog, journalists came second.

We discussed the issue on Newsnight - you can watch Jeremy and linguistics professor David Crystal below - and invited you to contribute your most egregious examples of poor apostrophe use. Here's a précis...

Someone called akaBigBob (one of the great things about this blog lark is that people don't have real names any more) told us he'd seen a sign in a Lymington secondhand book shop: "H.G.Well's Time Machine - 50p". Having died in 1946 HG is clearly not Well - but he might have seen this decline in punctuation coming.

As if to prove a rule, the unexceptionally-named chris-pearson laid claim to "the ultimate grocer's apostrophe" (grocers'?). He says, "'Twas in an auction catalogue - for a piece of photographic equipment, a "len's". Provenance is very important at auctions, Chris.

Welsh viewer ceredigioncradock weighed in with his/her own example: "There was no dinner in the house, so I ate the dogs. Or did I eat the dogs'?" I kind of hope the latter, but either way I think you might have more to worry about than where to stick an apostrophe.

If you fear for the next generation of grammarians and linguists, perhaps you should consider an aptly entitled school, as eclayton did: "I am happy to say that all our daughters attended James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich. They were thus given a head start in the use of apostrophes which has always sustained them." No mention of eclayton's sons' or son's knowledge of punctuation.

And a special thanks to jaspsoft, RicardianLesley, steveta_uk for more apostrophic posers.

But any entry that includes two such mistakes in one piece of signage must be the winner, full stop. So with just 42 shopping days until Christmas, here's gen0me's festive entry:

"Recently seen outside a garden centre in London suburbs: Xma's Tree's."

Jeremy asks linguistics professor David Crystal if we should ditch the apostrophe:

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  • Comment number 1.

    "If you fear for the next generation". . .

    I do. And my fear is not allayed at the thought some seem to put the apostrophe high on the list of things that might save them.

    I am far more concerned that the next generation will only be able to read if the book flickers and plays music (bought, in all probability, from BBC publications).

  • Comment number 2.


    For months I have asked the BBC to get a linguistics expert on (with a psychologist - as a regular feature) to sift the week's political utterances, and expose chicanery. SO NOW YOU GET ONE ON TO DISCUSS THE APOSTROPHE. Will you be getting 'Archie' on to consider angels on the head of a pin next?
    Why are so many of you paid so much? Is it to come up with son et lumiere studios and windswept high street interviews? Have you seen (and suffered) your 'stuff' from this end?

  • Comment number 3.


    Barrie (#1) Despite many posts, drawing on much empirical evidence and logic, it doesn't appear to have prompted any of the editors or producers to run with it, does it?

    What was it that Gilllian Tett said in 'Media Talk: Predicting the Crash' about icebergs and not talking about things we should........

    It doesn't show up within normed tests for what shoul be obvious reasons, and the Flynn Effect is probably an anomally of test item exposure and other artifacts. It's a logical prediction of our way of life and demographics though based on what we know.

  • Comment number 4.

    OH JJ - YOU HAVE TO LAUGH (#3 'not talking' link)

    Is there a professor of athletics out there who can be persuaded to utter: "Black sprinters are fastest"? The ensuing silence would be sooooo instructive.

    I'll get me Zimmer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Like all punctuation, the apostrophe serves a purpose of clarification. If its use has been ill-taught to some people, surely the remedy is to teach them correctly, not to abandon it.

    Perhaps those who propose abandoning it on grounds of difficulty should also abandon roundabouts and traffic-lights for drivers, or the giving of change by shop-assistants or the use of law by the courts...

  • Comment number 6.

    I recently saw a large poster saying "BUY ONE GET ONE FREE's" in a Tesco supermarket. How can there be hope for the humble greengrocer if multi-national businesses like Tesco can't even get it right?

  • Comment number 7.

    By not using the apostrophe, or misusing it, makes the user sim;y look silly. We know what they mean to say but it's simply wrong. Is it kinder to expect the misuse to remain uncorrected for the sake of red faces?

  • Comment number 8.

    By not using the apostrophe, or misusing it, makes the user simply look silly. We know what they mean to say but it's simply wrong. Is it kinder to expect the misuse to remain uncorrected for the sake of red faces?

  • Comment number 9.

    #8 loudscribe

    "We know what they mean to say but it's simply wrong."

    This is what I was writing about yesterday. Language and English aren't my best subjects.

    See it's is a possessive, so the ' is used.

    But the above sentence would also make sense to me as. "We know what they mean to say but it is simply wrong".

    The it is gets shortened to its, as not possessive so no '. It is an omission but not the possessive.


    Celtic Lion

  • Comment number 10.

    I am an English teacher and have just seen the report on apostrophes on the BBC news channel. In it, the reporter was asking members of the public where they would put an apostrophe in some simple phrases.

    One of the phrases was "James friends". In the report it was said the apostrophe should go at the end of the word James, however this is incorrect.

    Yes a word ending in 's' would have an apostrophe at the end to show possession, but when it is a proper noun ending in 's' then the correct usage is apostrophe s, therefore the correct phrase should read; James's friends.

    Please can the BBC get this right if they are going to judge people's poor grammar.

  • Comment number 11.

    In the same way that English culture has become the culture that everybody owns so has the English language. It is inevitable that with the mix of non-English approaches to language that the idiosyncratic 'rules' (where exceptions make up the majority of cases) will be eroded in favour of what most people understand. I think we have already lost the battle to preserve descriptive adjectives before nouns and are heading towards the latin system of constantly repeating 'of the'. Editing latin or romance language authors in English usually leaves a plethora of 'of the's at the end of the edited text. The word The is too complex for many non-Enlgish native speakers so I suspect we will lose the import of The vs A by using them incorrectly and hence rendering them meaningless. The chinese intonate strictly according to word meaning so emotion or emphasis is proabably on the way out too, no more sarcastic jokes, and finally the east europeans may eventually introduce the delights of place endings - tableon, tableunder, tableabout, tablebehind, tableabove etc. Wahay!

  • Comment number 12.

    Prof. Crystal didn't really say why we don't need an apostrophe in Parents Association.
    It seems to me we can distinguish between an association belonging to a group of parents and an association which is comprised of a group of parents. 'Parents Association' isn't really a possessive instance, it's more like a compound noun. At least, that's one way round the problem.

  • Comment number 13.

    You have quite enough to worry about the use of the apostrophe in the UK.
    Now imagine that for a decade or so the use of the Saxon genitive became quite fashionable in Portuguese speaking countries (Even more in Brazil than in Portugal).
    You can imagine the nonsensical phrases one would come across in shops' names and what not. Pity this discussion wasn't on at the time. I forget now the most comical examples.
    A propos, I love the tableon, tableabove and so on mentioned by doctormisswest #11. I'll try it next timearound.

  • Comment number 14.

    As I wrote to Newsnight:
    30. At 9:49pm on 27 Nov 2008, lexorcista wrote:
    pity the plight of the poor apostrophe
    UK has a shortage?
    missing from Woolworths where it ought to be
    BBC confused?
    or is Woolworth's not what it used to be?
    Apostrophes developed to fill a need and usage has become codified to facilitate communication.
    How silly to say we don't say apostrophes in conversation so not to use them -- how many punctuation marks are said? Emphasis, tone, facial expression, and gesture sometimes clarify what cd be ambiguous -- even so, we have "air quotation marks".
    No 13 explains the difference between with and without wrt The Parents Association.
    What was 'incorrect' in the video clip was how to indicate the plural of I. It can be "i"s, 'i's, or [i]s, but NOT I's as said. That is the possessive! The I's place in the alphabet is ninth. How many [i]s are there in Mississippi?
    How many MPs are there in parliament? Our MP's office is nearby. You can see that there's a difference between the plural of capitals/acronyms and the possessive.
    How many CDs or DVDs are there on the shelf? I don't like this CD's cover.
    Please, Jeremy, less focus on being controversial and ask some serious questions.

  • Comment number 15.

    The use of the apostrophe is merely convenient when it marks the omission of "i" or "ha" in the third person singular forms of "to be" or "to have". But when it constitutes the genitive case it provides a necessary distinction from the plural. A case in point is a sign in Birmingham: "Members Entrance"; without the apostrophe, it might mean "Genitals Fascinate".


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