The retirement, at 96, of the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society can hardly be the most surprising news, but it made a (slightly) interesting diversion from the usual doom and gloom, although John Richards himself was certainly disappointed to have conceded defeat in the war against the incorrect use of the mother tongue. A war that has been fought (fruitlessly) for centuries, and certainly since people like Samuel Johnson first compiled his dictionary.
In fact, if you take a look at the history of English, you’ll find that there really has never been a time when it was entirely settled. In Chaucer’s time, for example, day’s end would have been daies end (no apostrophe). Back in the sixteenth century, the apostrophe was used to indicate a plural in certain cases and the omission of a letter or letters in others – stolen from the French, in that case (l’heure – the hour).
So, does it matter much if the mythical greengrocer sells “tomato’s”?
No, it really doesn’t in my view.
Does it matter if Sainsbury’s prints up a thousand vinyl signs proclaiming cut price “video’s”. Yeah. That’s a different kettle of fish entirely.
When to use the apostrophe
In most cases, it’s pretty simple (“it’s” being a tricky one for many people).
An apostrophe can be used to indicate missing letters such as in “I’m” which is short for “I am”.
It can also be used to indicate possession (or, more accurately, an association, but let’s not muddy the waters).
Back in Shakespeare’s day, it might be “the dogges balle”, whereas now we’d use “the dog’s ball”.
If there’s more than one dog (and, in the interests of fairness also more than one ball), then the apostrophe gets added after the s. So, “the dogs’ balls.”
“It’s” means “It is”. If you want to indicate that something belongs to it, then don’t use an apostrophe – it’s the one exception I can think of. So, “The dog has lost its ball.” or, indeed “The dog thinks it’s its ball.”
So, it’s not rocket science unless you’re someone who earns their living by writing. In that case, you have to learn all the stylistic variations around the edges. So, for example, if Jesus owned a ball, would it be “Jesus’ ball” or “Jesus’s ball.”? Well, that depends on which style guide you follow.
I’ll confess to being a bit of a rebel (for example, I insist that “alright” is all right. This gives my editor hives, but there we are). So, where it’s a matter of style, I choose the one I prefer and stick with it. One day I’ll write a blog entry about the Oxford Comma. You have been warned.
When it matters and when it doesn’t
For me, as a writer, it always matters. But that’s because it’s my job.
For normal human beings in informal settings, it doesn’t matter. I would never correct a friend who used “it’s” when they should have used “its”. Unless that friend is a writer…
In formal situations – business letters, job applications, leaflets, posters, the sides of London buses, then yes, it does matter because to get it wrong suggests a lack of either professionalism or care.
This is almost never an issue of meaning. You really do have to tie yourself in knots to come up with a form of words that would be genuinely confusing. But getting it wrong in a professional situation does communicate something unwelcome.
So, farewell to John Richards. I hope he treated his campaign as a bit of fun because if he really thought he could correct modern usage he was wasting his time.
For myself, I try hard – really hard – to be relaxed about misuse of apostrophes. Sometimes, I even succeed.