Watch What You Write: This page is devoted to defending the English language and encouraging disciplined writing. Our regular contributor will be Adrianne LeMan who will seize on sloppy writing and firmly remind us of the need to write correctly. However, we welcome other contributors. Just send your piece or any comments on what we have published to email@example.com
On 17 January, it was reported that the City council of Cambridge (of all places) had banned punctuation from new street names on the basis that it “could lead to mistakes, especially for emergency services”. Birmingham had banned them, in 2009, as had mid-Devon, in 2013. Yesterday it was reported that Cambridge had reversed its decision, but I guess the others will not.
Far from causing confusion, apostrophes remove it: using the old chestnut of “the girls books”, without an apostrophe how would you know whether that was one girl who had more than one book (the girl’s books), or more than one girl that each had some books (the girls’ books)?
Apostrophes can give added information. For example, “his sisters’ children” immediately tells you that the “he” has more than one sister, “the hen’s eggs” that one hen has laid more than one egg.
Which is worse, however, leaving apostrophes out or putting them in plurals, where they don’t belong? There’s a workshop near King’s Cross, London, that makes “cabinet’s”….and an (official) road sign nearby that reads “NO LEFT TURN EXCEPT TAXIS’s”, and how often do you see apostrophes in decades – “1990’s” instead of “1990s”? While it seems to be “correct” grammar in the US to do this, the reason is beyond understanding: if you were to write 1990s out, you wouldn’t write “the nineteen ninetie’s”.
Then there’s the general confusion about what to do if a word or name ends in “s”. This results in “St Thomas’ Hospital” rather than as one says it, “St Thomas’s Hospital” (no-one would write “St Bartholomew’ Hospital”, so why St Thomas’?)
Finally, there’s the trap of “its” and “it’s”. “It’s” is one of the cases where an apostrophe has been used to denote missing letters (like “aren’t” – are not – and “wasn’t” – was not). It means “it is” (it’s going to rain today, it’s my birthday next week); “its”, on the other hand, is a possessive, as is “his” or “hers”.
The following extract from the Economist Style Guide sets out the use of apostrophes very clearly:
“Use the normal possessive ending ’s after singular words or names that end in s: boss’s, caucus’s, St James’s. Use it after plurals that do not end in s: children’s, Frenchmen’s, media’s.
“Use the ending s’ on plurals that end in s – Danes’, bosses’, Joneses’ – including plural names that take a singular verb, for example, Reuters’, Barclays’.
“Peoples’ = of peoples. People’s = of the people.
“Do not put apostrophes into decades: the 1990s not the 1990’s.”
Adrianne LeMan ran a UK company for many years with a team that wrote and edited annual reports, websites, brochures, etc, for a wide range of major companies. She now works as a freelance writer/editor – again assisting major companies. She is interested in words: their use, and misuse, the way they are spelled and the way they look. Adrianne also keeps a close eye on the use, and misuse, of language, which she feels should be clear and to the point.