views updated Jun 27 2018

APOSTROPHE1 [Pronunciation and stress: ‘a-POS-tro-fy’]. The sign ('), sometimes regarded as a PUNCTUATION MARK, sometimes as a DIACRITIC. The apostrophe has three uses: (1) To mark the omission or ELISION of letters and sounds, as in didn't for did not and fo'c'sle or fo'c's'le for forecastle. (2) To indicate a plural form, especially in abbreviations, as in V.I.P.'s (short for very important persons). (3) To mark POSSESSION in nouns, as in Jack's house (the house belonging to Jack), but not in possessive pronouns (hers, ours, etc., not *her's, *ours'), with the exception of one's. Each of the functions is discussed in detail below.

Omission and elision

The apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16c from Latin and Greek, in which it served to mark the loss of letters, as in the systematic dropping of er in Latin writing: for example, the word tercius (‘third’: classical form tertius) was commonly reduced in manuscripts to t'cius. Printers used the mark in the same way in English: for example, in o'er, a short form of over, and 'tis, a short form of it is. By the end of the 16c, the sign was commonly used in this role. Since the 19c, the convention has stabilized in four related areas: (1) The representation of colloquial or informal elisions, such as the reduced not in couldn't, hadn't, wasn't and the reduced -ing in huntin', shootin', and fishin'. (2) The marking of initial word CLIPPINGS, as in 'fraid so for afraid so and 'gator for alligator. (3) the omission of prefixed numbers, as with the '80s for the 1980s. (4) The representation of nonstandard speech and dialect, as in reg'lar, fr'en's o' mine, and fa' doun (Scots: fall down). Increasingly, however, 20c writers of dialect have regarded this use of the apostrophe as a patronizing convention marking dialect as deviant from, and subordinate to, standard usage. Many have therefore dispensed with it in their work. Bernard Shaw disliked the use of the apostrophe of omission in such forms as didn't, which he changed to didn't, a convention that continues to be followed when his works are printed.


There was formerly a respectable tradition (17–19c) of using the apostrophe for noun plurals, especially in loanwords ending in a vowel (as in We doe confess Errata's, Leonard Lichfield, 1641, and Comma's are used, Phillip Luckcombe, 1771) and in the consonants s, z, ch, sh (as in waltz's and cotillions, Washington Irving, 1804). Although this practice is rare in 20c standard usage, the apostrophe of plurality continues in at least five areas: (1) With abbreviations such as V.I.P.'s or VIP's, although forms such as VIPs are now widespread. (2) With letters of the alphabet, as in His i's are just like his a's and Dot your i's and cross your t's. In the phrase do's and don'ts, the apostrophe of plurality occurs in the first word but not the second, which has the apostrophe of omission: by and large, the use of two apostrophes close together (as in don't's) is avoided. (3) In decade dates, such as the 1980's, although such apostrophe-free forms as the 1980s are widespread, as are such truncations as the '80s, the form the '80's being unlikely. (4) In family names, especially if they end in -s, as in keeping up with the Jones's, as opposed to the Joneses, a form that is also common. (5) In the non-standard (‘illiterate’) use often called in BrE the greengrocer's apostrophe, as in apple's 55p per 1b and We sell the original shepherds pie's (notice in a shop window, Canterbury, England).


Although apostrophes began to be used to mark possession in the late 16c, only 4% of the possessives in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare (1623) had them. Most of the nouns using such apostrophes were loanwords ending in -o, such as Romeo's. The device proved useful, however, as a means of visibly distinguishing the possessive case, so that the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare (1685) made fairly consistent use of it in the singular. Scholars have generally regarded this use of the apostrophe as arising from the omission of the letter e in Old and Middle English -es GENITIVE singular endings (such as mannes man's, scipes ship's), spreading in due course to all genitives, with or without an e and plural as well as singular. Others have cited a noun-and-pronoun pattern of possession common in the 16–17c, as in Charles his name, where noun and pronoun came together as Charles's name and then spread to all possessives, male or female, singular or plural. However, it is the Old English inflection that more directly accounts for the use of the apostrophe in Modern English.

Variations in the use of the possessive marker continued for a long time, however; ‘As late as 1794 Washington Irving used apostrophes in only 38% of the possessives in his personal correspondence’ ( Greta D. Little, ‘The Ambivalent Apostrophe’, English Today, 8 Oct. 1986). By the mid-18c, however, the convention had extended to the possessive use of irregular noun plurals (children's, men's, and women's clothing), but the treatment of regular s-plurals posed problems. Some grammarians of the period, for example, saw no need for the mark in such phrases as the soldiers hats, because nothing was omitted; indeed, there was debate as to whether a distinct plural genitive existed in Modern English. By the middle of the 19c, however, such forms as the soldiers' hats were more or less established, but even so it appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.

The conventions for the use of the possessive apostrophe in late 20c standard English are: singular nouns add's (known as apostrophe s), as in John's new suit and Your mother's job. Plural nouns have s' (known as s apostrophe), as in the Smiths' cat and my parents' house (the house belonging to my parents). If a plural does not end in s, an apostrophe s is added: the children's food. Such a phrase as the sheep's behaviour is ambiguous out of context: it can be singular or plural. Beyond this point difficulties and inconsistencies are as common in the 1990s as in earlier times, especially with proper nouns. Singular use varies with place-names (St John's, Newfoundland, but St Albans, England and St Andrews, Scotland). There has been an accelerating tendency since the turn of the century to drop the apostrophe in the names of organizations and publications as well as place-names, as in: Barclays Bank, Collins English Dictionary, Crows Nest, Debenhams, Harrods, Marks and Spencer, McMahons Point, Pikes Peak. There is also widespread difficulty with its and it's. Its is the genitive or possessive of the personal pronoun it, as in The cat licked its paws, where it is possessive but does not have an apostrophe. It's is a contraction of it is, as in It's too late (It is too late), or it has, as in It's made a mess (It has made a mess); it is not possessive, but does have an apostrophe, because letters have been omitted.

There is widespread inconsistency and uncertainty in the use of the apostrophe when a singular noun already ends in -s. Traditional usage adds the apostrophe s if it is pronounced: the boss's explanation. With names of classical origin, a second s is not usually added, especially when the end sound of a word is /z/ rather than /s/: Xerxes' battle, Socrates' pupils. In speaking, a further syllable is less likely with such names as Xerxes', where the last syllable already has two sibilant sounds, but might or might not be pronounced with Socrates'. With non-classical names ending in -s, again spoken and written forms may or may not have the same number of syllables. With short names, an extra syllable is generally pronounced, although the possessive can be written either way: Mr Harris's job, Mr Harris's job; Keats' poetry, Keats's poetry. The extra syllable for Jesus is optional in both writing and speech: in Jesus' name, in Jesus's name. The possessive plural of a singular name ending in -s (Jones) may be written either 's or s': the Jones's house, the Jones' house. The tendency seems to be towards simplification and omitting the apostrophe: a century ago, Chambers English Dictionary was Chambers's English Dictionary.


Some observers consider that the general use of the apostrophe, especially for possession and plurality, is in decline, because it bears little relation to the spoken word and is a source of confusion in writing and print. Others urge that it be abandoned in some or all of its roles, a position that, if carried to the extreme, would make homographs of he'll and hell. Still others prefer a middle option that keeps the apostrophe for omission and elision but drops it for plurality and possession. Greta Little (above) sees the following forms (all authentic) as typifying many present-day public signs: Dads Favorite Shop, Chelsea Mans Shop, Men's and Ladies Wear, Ladies and Mens Hair Styling, Childrens section, First 200 Mom's Get a Free Rose, Knoxville Welcome's Big John Tate, Violators will be towed at owners expense, Joe's Joke Book, Poes Kiddie Komics. Because such conflicting forms occur close to each other in prominent places such as shopping malls in the US, she notes:
In and of itself the diversity can be confusing to youngsters on their way to achieving literacy. But what are these learners to make of direct contradictions like Vella's Deli and Vellas Deli or Richie's Lounge and Richies Lounge? They are very likely to conclude that the apostrophe means nothing, that it plays some non-significant, decorative role. And there is often evidence which would support that hypothesis: Kelly's with a shamrock ‘apostrophe’, Moma's Restaurant with a heart, and Patricia's Toy Closet where the apostrophe is a claw on the paw of a tiger that is stretched out atop the sign.It is likely, however, that the many and varied uses of the apostrophe will remain part of the language for a long time to come, despite some reduction in range, and accompanied by a great deal of inconsistency and error in practice. See APH(A)ERESIS, APHESIS, SAXON GENITIVE.


views updated Jun 08 2018

APOSTROPHE2 [Stress: ‘a-POS-tro-fy’].
1. In RHETORIC, addressing someone or something that cannot respond, such as: a dead person (‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour’: Wordsworth), a place (‘Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain’: Goldsmith), or an idea (‘O liberty! O liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!’: translating Mme Roland). Originally, the term referred to the invocation opening such epics as Homer's Iliad: ‘Sing, Goddess, of the deadly wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus.’

2. A deliberate interruption, as when a lawyer breaks off from an argument to address a judge or turn on an opponent, usually for rhetorical effect or to divert attention from a tricky issue or a weak argument.


views updated Jun 11 2018

a·pos·tro·phe1 / əˈpästrəfē/ • n. a punctuation mark ( ’ ) used to indicate either possession e.g., Harry’s book; boys’s coats) or the omission of letters or numbers (e.g., can’t; he’s; class of ’99).a·pos·tro·phe2 • n. Rhetoric an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person (typically one who is dead or absent) or thing (typically one that is personified).


views updated Jun 08 2018

apostrophe2 †omission of a sound or letter; the sign' denoting this. XVII. — F. apostrophe or late L. apostrophes — late Gr. apóstrophos (see prec.); assim. to prec.


views updated May 18 2018

apostrophe1 (rhet.) exclamatory address. XVI. — L. — Gr. apostrophḗ turning away (to one in particular), f. apostréphein.
Hence apostrophize XVIII.