Apostrophe vigilantes: who cares?

Victoria University's Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, Laurie Bauer, weighs in on the apostrophe debate after the story of the self-styled apostrophe vigilante, who corrects punctuation in the dead of night, hit international headlines

The Apostrophe Police are everywhere. Not only do they want you to get apostrophes in what they think are the right places, they are also ready to mock you if you get it wrong. The general message is that the rules for apostrophes are very easy, and only a fool could make a mistake.

So what are the rules? An apostrophe shows possession, not plural. Put the apostrophe before the ‘s’ if there is just one possessor, after the ‘s’ if there are two or more. To confuse the matter somewhat, if an apostrophe can also mean that some letter or letters are left out, as in ‘you’ll’, where the ‘wi’ from the beginning of ‘will’ is missed out. So if those are the rules, and the rules are easy, let’s try a little test to make sure you’ve got it sorted out. I’ll provide answers after the test. Even if you think the rules are really easy, try it out.

1. Which is right: (a) girl school, (b) girl’s school, (c) girls school, (d) girls’ school

2. Which is right: (a) The cat was sick in its basket (b) The cat was sick in it’s basket

3. Which is right: (a) That cat is hers (b) That cat is her’s

4. Which is right: (a) in three days time (b) in three day’s time, (c) in three days’ time

5. Which is right: (a) during the 1970s, (b) during the 1970’s

6. Which is right: (a) Hawkes Bay, (b) Hawke’s Bay

7. Which is right: (a) He wrote several sonatas, (b) He wrote several sonata’s

Answers:

1. None of them is clearly wrong, and all can be found. Option (a) is parallel to ‘infant school’; and we cannot hear the difference between the other three. Some people feel that (c) is wrong because plural nouns seldom come immediately before other nouns, but ‘people power’ and ‘jobs programme’ show this rule to be too strong.

2. The right answer is (a). This is the case that causes most problems. The trouble is that although the cat possesses the basket, ‘it’ is a pronoun, and pronouns never take apostrophes. Accordingly, ‘its’ is only ever an abbreviation of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ (because of omitted letters).

3. This is the same. ‘Hers’ is a pronoun, so no apostrophe, even if there is possession.

4. Option (c) is right (and Microsoft Word knows, and marks the others as wrong). If you said ‘in one day’s time’ it would be clear that it had to have a possessive, and with ‘three days’ (which is plural) the apostrophe must come after the ‘s’.

5. It depends how old you are. The (b) option used to be considered right, and I was taught it in school. These days the (a) option is preferred. But there is the crux: it is a matter of preference, not a matter of right and wrong.

6. Option (b) is right in general, but ask the Hawkes Bay Golf Club and you might get a different answer. Place names and names of businesses are inconsistent when it comes to apostrophes, and you have to know, you cannot predict.

7. Option (b) used to be considered right, because ‘sonata’ ends in a vowel letter that is not ‘e’. These days option (a) is preferred, and has been for a long time. Note that while the old-fashioned rule might allow ‘pizza’s’, it does not allow ‘apple’s’ or ‘peach’s’, even if you have seen these in shop displays. That overuse is called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’, and is frowned upon by the Apostrophe Police.

Overuse such as the greengrocer’s apostrophe and the general lack of ambiguity of messages has led my colleague Janet Holmes to suggest that we would be better off if we banned all apostrophes from public notices: who cares if the notice on the door in a restaurant says Ladies or Ladies’? Will you refuse to use it if the apostrophe is wrong? And in any case, which is right?

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