The Possessive Apostrophe

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Currently there is a raging furore among academics and local politicians over the decision of Birmingham City Council to remove the possessive apostrophe from street signs. While this action raises rather serious issues concerning the preservation of unique features of the English language, I cannot help seeing the funny side of this dispute.

The fact that this initiative emanates from Birmingham (“Good old Brum”) rather than from established literary centres such as Oxford or Cambridge, may at first strike one as strange. Is it on the cards that such dignified and august bodies as The Apostrophe Protection Society, The Plain English Society and the Plain Language Commission (all of whom have leapt to defend the apostrophe) can actually be defeated by a certain Martin Mulaney, whose title is Chairman of Birmingham City Council’s Transportation Scrutiny Committee?

While the apostrophe is frequently misused, also omitted by a substantial proportion of the British public, is it not true that, to some extent, we are fond of it? For one thing, other major languages hardly have one. It might have been introduced into English from French in the 16th century (according to Crystal) but in later ceturies we have enjoyed almost exclusive use of this charming squiggle.

The phrase: “The teacher’s son’s classroom” may lack elegance, but is surely better than the roundabout “La salle de classe du fils du professeur.” Similarly “John’s sister’s programme” is more succinct than “El programa de la hermana de Juan”. Pragmatic German and Nordic languages simply add ‘s’ to denote the genitive: Deutschlands Wetter; Danmarks kong; Sveriges huvudstad; while Romance languages have to resort to a variety of forms:

French: de, de la, du, des

Spanish: de, de la, del, de las, de los

Italian: di, della, del, dello, delle, dei, degli

Portuguese: de, da, do, das, dos

The apostrophe originated from a confused past and that confusion has yet to subside. For many English people punctuation as a whole is a minefield of error and inconsistency. The “dog’s tail” seems OK, but “the table’s edge” and “the room’s corner” are forbidden. Even commas cause trouble, as we know from Lynn Truss’ lovely book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” where inside we find that a panda eats shoots and leaves.

As a linguist, I have to take sides. Instinctively I must defend the apostrophe and avoid what John Richards describes as the “dumbing down” of our reading public. However, the characteristics of modern journalism (using writing as a medium for fleeting speech) and the pervasive influence of texting would suggest that our little squiggle has a bleak future in the 21st century and may not survive it.

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