PPFF #159: apostrophe

Good morning,

Apostrophe. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this little punctuation device; not so much its usage to indicate omission of a vowel in a sentence e.g. “I’m” instead of “I am” but the possessive form e.g. “Paul’s car”. I remember having a moderate shouting match with someone, over who was right about where to place the apostrophe in ‘Steel Designers Manual’ (apostrophe omitted on purpose in this case to stay neutral); the discussion was about whether ‘Steel Designer’s Manual’ or ‘Steel Designers’ Manual’ was right.

Now, the UK’s productivity level is already one of the lowest among G7 countries without these silly discussions eating into our productive work hours. So I thought I’d make my contribution to the UK economy by providing this information, eliminating the need to set aside time to settle disputes each and every time this arises, and hence indirectly improving our productivity.

An hour of googling revealed that the rules are surprisingly simple. But before the boring rules, let’s go over its origin. In French an apostrophe used to (still does) replace an omitted (unpronounced) vowel letter in a process called ‘elision’, e.g. l’auberge (apostrophe in place of the missing ‘a’). In the 16th century, the English borrowed this practice from the French as it is now in English; but apparently, the Old English possessive form of the noun ‘pigs’ was ‘pigges’ (of pigs), where the ‘e’ used to be pronounced but gradually people stopped pronouncing the ‘e’ and accordingly placed an apostrophe in its place to indicate the now omitted ‘e’ (all from  this source, which I can’t vouch for the veracity of) – consistent with the logic/history behind “I am” becoming “I’m”. Pretty cool.

Anyhow, the basic rules are:

  • Add ‘s at the end of most singular nouns to indicate possession e.g. Designer’s.
  • Add ‘ only at the end of most plural nouns to indicate possession e.g. Designers’.
  • For singular nouns ending with an s-sound, use EITHER of the above two rules, whichever sounds better e.g. St. James’ or James’s at your discretion.

So it turns out that argument I mentioned earlier never had to happen in the first place as one of us meant one designer’s manual while the other meant many designers’ manual.

(You’re welcome, Theresa May)

Hav’ a good Friday