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The Apostrophe – a brief history

If you are reading this blog it is probably because you have a passing interest in writers, apostropheswriting, and grammar. You will, no doubt, know all about the correct use of apostrophes, apply them correctly most of the time – even the best of us slip up now and then – and snigger when you see them misused by greengrocers and such-like. Possibly you feel you are maintaining long-established standards, handed down to us by the Venerable Bede, Chaucer, and others of similar vintage.

Wrong! There was no apostrophe in the English language until the sixteenth century, when printing was established and their use was adopted from the French to indicate an elision or abbreviation (such as wouldn’t). It wasn’t used to signal possession – the writer’s pen – until the end of that century . The convention for showing the single and plural possession differently (the dog’s bowl, or the dogs’ bowl) only started in the nineteenth century with the advent of mechanised printing. How those pen-pushers of yore must have fumed to find their established, apostrophe-free, grammar undermined by the new-fangled printing industry.

The apostrophe is irrelevant in spoken English. Context will tell you if the speaker means the bowl belongs to one or more dogs, and you don’t pause in the middle of it’s, as in ‘it’s another sunny day’ because the listener understands perfectly well that you have elided it and is. The listener will also understand from context the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in ‘You’re joking of course if you think I want your opinion.’ apostrophe2

It could be argued that, if apostrophes are irrelevant to meaning and are unrecognisable in speech, we shouldn’t need them at all. By this logic they should be dying out as being too tiresome to write or read. Instead their use seems to be growing and you see them sprouting up in all sorts of unlikely situations.

I don’t intend stopping using them myself, but will try to confine my use of them to the correct places. Correct that is, for the early twenty-first century.


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