Nothing in the wide, wide world of grammar seems to get people more agitated than the humble apostrophe (‘). Twitter is bursting with images of butchers’ shop fronts, advertising boards and local newspaper articles in which the author has been a little vague with the use of this particular punctuation mark. Otherwise sane adults can turn an apoplectic pink at the sight of an apostrophe in the wrong place. So, where did the story of this tiny terror begin?
There are a few different punctuation marks that hang about above the text, but the apostrophe most closely resembles its line-bound cousin, the comma (,). It slants a little from bottom left to right, often with a small bulb at the top.
As with many controversial ideas, the apostrophe made its way to England from over the Channel in France, where it had first used by Geoffrey Tory in 1529 to show where a letter (usually a vowel) had been dropped: for example, l’hôtel instead of le hotel.
It was then adopted in the same way in English, showing where part of a word was no longer pronounced: for example, I don’t instead of I do not or inspir’d instead of inspired.
This latter example occurs more in older styles of English, as might be found in Christian hymns or the King James Bible; in standard English spelling inspired has kept its e, even though the letter isn’t pronounced.
As English grammar moved on with new habits and usage, the apostrophe began to take on new roles, slipping in before an s to indicate the singular possessive case from around the end of the 17th century.
It then popped up after the s to indicate the plural possessive case about a hundred years later.
The bee’s knees and the wasps’ stings
And with that, the two main purposes of the apostrophe were established.
- To show where a letter or letters have been left out (e.g. I’ve dropped the letter e).
- To show the possessive case (e.g. writer’s block)
If only it was just that simple. As the use of apostrophes has changed with fashions over the centuries, some habits have proved difficult to remove and some changes have been fiercely resisted.