Wednesday 7 December 2011

coroners and their courts

I had a phone call yesterday from a BBC local radio station, wanting me to comment on the shock-horror news that Camden Council had erected a sign saying “Coroners Court”, with no apostrophe.
I wasn’t terribly keen to accept the invitation. Local radio interviews are time-consuming, have a small audience, and are unpaid. Nevertheless I chatted for a short while with the production assistant. In our conversation I took my usual line (blogs, 17 May 2011 and 3-6 Oct 2008), saying I didn’t really think that missing apostrophes were a matter worth getting hot under the collar about, and that in this case there was anyhow some question about whether it needed an apostrophe, and — if it did — whether it should go before or after the s. It would really be better if we abolished all possessive apostrophes.

The production assistant was dismayed at my reaction. She had me down as a stickler for orthographic accuracy, a defender of supposedly fixed rules. She was hoping that I would forthrightly condemn the Council’s illiteracy. When she realized that I wasn’t going to do so, she brought the conversation to a close and said they would look for someone else to comment on the matter.

That was fine with me. It does, though, demonstrate the point that radio producers often have an agenda. If you’re not going to go along with that agenda, they may not want to interview you after all.

The case of Coroner’s/Coroners’/Coroners Court is not unambiguously clear-cut. We do indeed normally write Coroner’s Court, because each court has just one Coroner. Or do some such courts have two or more coroners? If so, the court in question would be a Coroners’ Court. And what is the plural? With several courts, there are presumably several coroners, which justifies the spelling Coroners’ Courts: is Coroner’s Courts OK too?

In the case of the Coroners’ Courts Support Service (pictured: note the two apostrophes) I suppose you could actually argue for Coroners’ Courts’ Support Service. In the other direction, I note that the webpage of the Coroners’ Society has a link to the Coroners’ Court [sic] Support Service.

It reminds me of the inconsistent naming of London tube stations, where the station after Earl’s Court as you go towards Heathrow is Barons Court (no apostrophe). King’s Cross is supposed to have an apostrophe, but not Colliers Wood or Golders Green.

Even when wielding an editor’s blue pencil, where I do try to ensure correct use of apostrophes, I wouldn’t change Sports Day to Sport’s Day or Sports’ Day — would you? I’m really not sure where to put the apostrophe, if any, in Gardener’s/Gardeners’/Gardeners Question Time. In the same spirit, I can live with Coroners Court, too.


  1. I suscribe to the Investors Chronicle, and the lack of apostrophe irritates me, but again I don't actually know where it should go. Then there's Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank, Sainsbury's versus Morrisons, etc.

  2. The cases you mention like Harrods and Sainsbury's are different, though.

  3. You should have referred her to Simon Heffer.

  4. This is what Professor Pauline Foster has to say about the misuse of apostrophes in English:

    "The apostrophe is a pointless invention of the 17th century. Let’s get rid of it entirely."

    For more on that, go to

  5. The correct use of apostrophe for named institutions is that which is chosen by each institution. Coroners Court (the Camden one) and Investors Chronicle are correct because they are the choices of Camden Council and the publishers/editors of the periodical.

    In making their decision, these bodies are increasingly placing more trust in graphic designers and less in professional proofreaders. And a good thing too, say I.

    Another consideration is 'custom and practice' — which would seem to account for the anomalous King's Cross against the norm of Barons Green etc.

    The Corners' Society made their choice — based on conservative practice and the notion of a multitude of courses, each presided over by a single coroner. It follows that the noun-phrase modifier before Support should be Coroners' Courts. In writing a contrary link, the composer of the web page was simply unaware of the official choice and the issues that had prompted it.

  6. I think this is the story:

    Worth having a look at - it's a classic example of a non-story.

    The only person they could get to comment was John Graham, chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society in Lancashire. Sounds like a fun guy!

  7. Alex Rotari

    The apostrophe is a pointless invention of the 17th century

    It's older than that. It had considerable point in 16th century France and England. Even today, apostrophes can make texts easier to read. Just try reading George Bernard Shaw.

    What would be pointless is to make a universal Diktat forbidding the use of apostrophes in any context. Better by far to leave it to natural selection. The greengrocers put apostrophes on their signs because they work.

    Keep the apostrophes but abolish the rules — well, maybe not abolish them, but reduce them to suggested guidelines and 'house rules'.

  8. Correction to my message of 13.52

    the notion of a multitude of courses, each presided over by a single coroner

    My aggressive spellchecker again! It should be

    the notion of a multitude of courts, each presided over by a single coroner

  9. Just turned up hundred years war (have a potential ancestor in it).

    The apostrophe has various functions, I assume the blog refers only to the genetive apostrophe. Current usage seems to be random and causes more confusion than leaving it out altogether. I agree with John.

  10. If I may arrogate to myself a vote in a matter which concerneth me not (as a non-native occasional user of English): I'd leave the apostrophe where it stands for (or is a trace of) an elided vowel or more in _today's language_, as in 'it's' for 'it is', or 'he's' for 'he is' or 'he has'.

    Now the Saxon genitive's 's' does not stand for elided vowel in today's language. It may stand for an elided vowel in past forms of English. _But_: it may be useful nonetheless, in 'children's corner' it is not, as 'childrens' is not mistakable for anything else, but what it is, viz. the genitive plural of 'child'. But 'Customers' complaints'? Would 'customers complaints' do just as well? Here we enter the delicate terrain of native _Sprachgefuehl_, on which I will not tread.

  11. For more on 'customer(s) complaints', see here:

  12. I've always found it ironic that, to avoid ambiguity, you're not supposed to put punctuation in wills.

  13. It'd interest me if someone knew examples of _correct_ punctuation which gave rise to ambiguities. In fact, I'd be amazed if such existed.

  14. I wouldn't have said that Sports Day requires an apostrophe. I assume Sports is a plural, not a possessive. (A singular equivalent might, for instance, be "Kite Day", i.e. a day when you go to fly kites.)
    The use of the apostrophe to mark the possessive has no historical justification in any case. Apparently it came into use (not sure when - maybe around Shakespeare's time) under the mistaken assumption that the genitive ending "-es" was a contraction of "his".

  15. Well, mercifully I'd think that the apostrophe in 'wolf's' signals a lost vowel---lost since long---for in Old English it was 'wolfes' or maybe 'wulfes', I forget. Or 'day's' <-- 'daeges' in Old English. The vowel between the 's' and the stem of the noun must have get lost sometime in the Middle English period, and even if the apostrophe was introduced due to the false theory with 'his', it may be taken to remind contemporary anglophone peoples of the venerable history of their idiom (and things that were in't, but are not longer, a thousand or eight hundred years ago). The English are, after all---are they not---so enamoured of their history.

  16. @Voitjeq,
    Ai m not xur if it wωrcs in inglix, bt ai nou ə provωrb ðt xous wot ju asc:
    hu siŋz, hiz misfórkuun scerz of
    hu siŋz hiz misfórkuun, scerz of

  17. @ˈvɔjtɕɛχ,
    ˈaɪ əm nɒt ʃʊər ɪf ɪt ˈwɜːks ɪn ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ, bət ˈaɪ nəʊ ə ˈprɒvɜːb ðət ʃəʊs wɒt ju ɑːsk:
    huː sɪŋz, hɪz ˌmɪsˈfɔːtʃuːn skeəz ɒf,
    huː sɪŋz ɪz ˌmɪsˈfɔːtʃuːn, skeəz ɒf

  18. @Deivid Crozbi,
    Ai dount əɡri wið ju, bicoz priscriptiv ruulz ə juusfl əz ə comn cann t cmplai wið. Φðrwaiz, ju wount hv friidm t kuuz jr feivrit ridacxn or orþoɡrəfi, bt jr bos or ði editr əv pφblɪcein wl disaid fr ju. Rimembr ðt wφn əv ðouz derd t cuiri prəfesr Welzəz kois əv ‘z’ fr ‘-ize’ vωrbz.

  19. ˈdeɪvɪd ˈkrɒzbi,
    ˈaɪ dəʊnt əˈɡriː wɪð ju, bɪˈkɒz prɪˈskrɪptɪv ruːlz ə ˈjuːsfəl əz ə ˈkɒmən ˈkænən tə kəmˈplaɪ wɪð. ˈʌðəwaɪz, ju wəʊnt həv ˈfriːdəm tə tʃuːz jə ˈfeɪvrɪt rɪˈdækʃn̩ ɔːr ɔːˈθɒɡrəfi, bət jʊə bɒs ɔː ði ˈedɪtə əv ˌpʌblɪˈkeɪʃn̩ wl dɪˈsaɪd fə ju. rɪˈmembə ðət wʌn əv ðəʊz deəd tə ˈkwɪəri prəˈfesə ˈwelzəz tʃɔɪs əv fə <-ize> vɜːbz.

  20. Ad Hlnodovic,

    Unfortunately, I fail to make sense of the proverb. 'Who sings his misfortune scares off'? I am not bright enough, I fear. Can you help me? Besides, I was asking for an example of sentence in which punctuation set _properly_ gives rise, by the very self-same dint of its being so set, i. e. properly, to ambiguity. Is that what your proverb is supposed to be an example of?

  21. @Anna Lowenstein: the Oxford English Dictionary seems to disagree. This, s.v. 'apostophe' n.²:

    "The sign (') used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters, as in o'er, thro', can't; and as a sign of the modern English genitive or possessive case, as in boy's, boys', men's, conscience', Moses'.
    In the latter case, it originally marked merely the omission of e in writing, as in fox's, James's, and was equally common in the nominative plural, esp. of proper names and foreign words (as folio's = folioes); it was gradually disused in the latter, and extended to all possessives, even where e had not been previously written, as in man's, children's, conscience' sake."

  22. Hindovic

    I have nothing against 'house rules' — rules of style within a firm, a school, a publishing house. But they need to be much more justifiable before they can be seen as a 'common canon'.

    Even the narrowest prescriptive rules won't yield a single solution for the problem of Coroner's Court/Coroners' Court — let alone the problem of Coroner's Court Support/Coroners' Court Support/Coroners Court Support and variants with Court's/Courts'/Courts.

    There is no agreement on the prescriptive rules. Some allow and some forbid such spellings as P's and Q's, 1960's, CD's.

    The hardline conservative 'genitive rule' is downright wrong for entities like Barclays which have made the spelling without apostrophe their legal brand name. To insert an apostrophe is totally inaccurate — not to say discourteous.

    The 'greengrocer's apostrophe' decried by hardliners is a legitimate tool of marketing.

    The hardest rule for English-speaking children to learn — the spelling of possessive forms of irregular plurals — is by far the least useful. Mens in place of the official spelling men's is totally unambiguous (in Standard English) as to pronunciation and grammatical meaning.

    The association of the term possessive with apostrophes actually generates the nonstandard it's for 'of it' — probably the most frequent 'error' made by native-speaker writers.

    Only in the case of elisions and contractions does an apostrophe make it constantly easier to read words. (Try reading George Bernard Shaw.) There's sometimes an advantage when distinguishing possessive singular from (non-possessive) plural (boy's, boys). Much less often does it help to have a spelling that distinguishes possessive singular from possessive plural (boy's, boys'). Very often the writer does not intend such a distinction — hence the problem with coroners and their courts.

  23. Wojciech

    It'd interest me if someone knew examples of _correct_ punctuation which gave rise to ambiguities. In fact, I'd be amazed if such existed.

    The reason commas were abolished from wills is that lawyers used to argue on the basis of where the will-make had placed them. A very good thing, since many writers used unconventional punctuation — leaving themselves open to misinterpretation.

    A good lawyer drawing up a will would do it in such a way that punctuation would be irrelevant — and so there would be point in writing any commas.

    I don't think lawyers today are so determined to omit commas. But I believe they's consider a document that relied on the placing of commas for precision would constitute bad drafting. What I think is still true is that judges resolutely disregard commas when making interpretations.

  24. I write as a grammarian by education and inclination but legal draughtsman by (erstwhile) profession.

    Any legal draftsman worth his or her salt will naturally construct legalese which requires neither contractions nor possessives beyond possessive pronouns (which are unique formations and thus do not take apostrophes, hence yours, its, his, hers, ours and theirs all being kindred constructs) and will write in bullet ists which reuire no other puncutation either.

    I recall that one of my very first (re)drafting duties many years ago consisted of re-wrtiting the standard form of residential lease the firm used - the original form included a narrative paragraoh of over 80 words which was one sentence and nobody could ever work their way around it. I rewrote it into a series of bullet points which made a great deal more sense but still contained no punctuation!

    As for Coroner's -v- Coroners' -v- Coroners, most jurisdictions have a single Coroner - in the sense of the Office of Coroner (analogous to, say, Sherrif) - although there may be various individuals who are qualified to sit in charge of the Court of the Coroner. There is usually a single Coroner's Court and regardless of how many individuals take turns sitting in charge of it, only one sits at any given time. It therefore makes sense for the function, office (and indeed bulding or chamber) to be referred to as the Coroner's Court.

    Other jurisdictions are a little more modern and treat the title of Coroner not as a designator of office, but of function and thus there can be more than one Coroner sitting at any time. It thus makes sense for such jurisdictions to have Coroners' Courts.

    I would find it impossible to make a cogent case based on usage and/or history to have a Coroners Court - it makes no grammatical, functional or legal sense. Especially given, as I hinted above, it is the Court of the Coroner(s).

  25. Two things:

    - The spellings coroners' court and coroners court are easily justifiable (one or several coroners, possessive or general attributive use), but I'm quite sure that's not what the speller had in mind. My suspicion is they didn't want to be revolutionary but wanted to write according to the majority rules and simply failed. That you can still explain it away made it just easier.

    - The idea makes sense to me that punctuation in legal texts was left out not to reduce ambiguity, even if one assumes the wording had to be adapted to make sure it's unambiguous even without punctuation - otherwise just leaving it out would indeed increase the danger of ambiguity. It makes more sense that it was left out on principle, so that nobody could add any later on that might change the meaning. I know hardly anything about legal traditions, but that words were capitalised to mark the beginning of sentences and paragraphs speaks in favour of this.

  26. The apostrophe is usually left out in place names anyway, but in Australia a Commonwealth geographical names board (I don't have the details) solved the problem drastically by forbidding possessives altogether. This has meant that the universally known Coopers Creek (or Cooper's Creek) is now officially on maps and on signage (and increasingly referred to) as Cooper Creek.

  27. Plum

    The case against Coroners Court is simply that we seldom use non-possessive plural forms as noun premodifiers — hence such oddities as trouser press. This is, however, not a universal principle: we've long had sports day and more recently The Children Act. There's no principled objection to Coroners Court as a future development.

  28. What, pray, does this topic have to do with phonetics?

  29. I don't think we can separate the factor of singular vs plural reference from the question of specific vs generic reference.

    If we speak and write about a room assigned to a specific occupant or occupants, the problem evaporates. Either it's the Coroner's room or it's the Coroners' room.

    In cases lie this, I always remember the exemplary sentence She wants to marry a Norwegian. This room example is like the reading that continues His name is Peter.

    The court example, by contrast, is like She wants to marry a Norwegian. She has a fantasy about Vikings.. The court is seen as belonging (usually) not to a specific Coroner names John Smith or whatever, but to anyone who currently hold the position of coroner. It makes no difference if John Smith shares the court with Fred Bloggs; all that matters is that the 'possessor' one or more individuals of the type coroner.

    A speaker referring to such a court may neither know nor care how many coroners are involved. Writing the phrase down would distort the speakers meaning by destroying the intended — and often desirable — ambiguity.

  30. Ad David Crosbie,

    I agree with the above, but what are the morals? I'm not getting it. If there is just one Coroner, John Smith, then 'Coroner's', if several---then 'Coroners'', or 'Coroners', as a kind of adjective? Is this what you are suggesting? Fine with me---but in a sense there always is just one Coroner, i.e. one office, social role, and maybe a mystical body (like the French who before the Revolution believed that there be just one _Roi de France_...).

    If 'she' desired to marry 'a' (in the double sense) Norwegian, then in the first case his name had better be 'Peer' ('Peter' seems to be rare in the land of Sophus Lie), and in the second---she, if she be English, would be better advised to want to marry a Dane.

  31. Wojciech:

    Roger Casement was hanged for treason in 1916 "on a comma". The 1351 act on which he was convicted said (in Norman French): "If a man be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere [...]". Since Casement's treasonable acts had been carried out in Germany, i.e. "elsewhere", it seemed that he was technically innocent. The original documents were examined, and the judges claimed to detect a virgule (a mediaeval version of the comma), making the text read "If a man be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm giving them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere [...]", thus extending the scope of "or elsewhere" back across the entire sentence. In the online version, the comma appears in the English, but not in the French.

    More mundanely, anglophones disagree about how to use commas in lists of three or more noun phrases. In North America, all except the last are followed by commas thus: "butter, eggs, and cheese". Elsewhere, the more usual style is "butter, eggs and cheese". The final comma, when present, is called the Oxford comma, because Oxford University Press traditionally insisted on it. North American newspapers do not use the Oxford comma, allegedly for reasons of space.

    Comic ambiguities can arise either way: the book dedication to "my parents, Marilyn Monroe[,] and God" looks blasphemous without the Oxford comma. On the other hand, "my mother, Marilyn Monroe, and God" is ambiguous too: is the author really Marilyn's son? But there are worse cases: "The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector." Is Mandela really both a demigod and a dildo collector? Inserting an Oxford comma doesn't help that much: "with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector" makes him a demigod (the commas are now paired commas setting off an apposition) but not a dildo collector. In fact, it's presumed that three different people were meant, an idea most clearly expressed by writing "with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector[,] and Nelson Mandela", with or without comma.

  32. Wojciech

    but in a sense there always is just one Coroner, i.e. one office, social role, and maybe a mystical body

    Yes, that's what I mean by generic reference. In another sense there's a large but finite number of specific individual coroners — my John Smith being a hypothetical example.

    Generic reference often ignores grammatical number:
    A coroner is a specialist judge
    Coroners are specialist judges

    With semantic classes such as animals and tools, even definiteness becomes irrelevant.
    A cat is a solitary creature
    The cat is a solitary creature
    Cats are solitary creatures

  33. Ad John Cowan

    All of this is very interesting. On what it does not get my any forr'arder, though, is (here I am becoming more aware of what I have always been asking for) this: if there be examples of sentences where punctuation _properly set_ creates ambiguities which disappear once the punctuation has been removed. Your examples show that wrong punctuation can mangle or misrepresent the sense of the sentence and that there are cases (like Mandela's) where no punctuation or whatever punctuation (right or wrong) helps little, and the phrase's got to be rephrased.

    Interestingly, ambiguities in syntax being often a matter of scope, it could be useful to adopt Whitehead-and-Russell (Principia Mathematica) multiple-dot system for natural languages to mark off scopes, for instance:

    you must not smoke, or drink liquours, or swear, in this room

    after 'swear' a comma is necessary lest someone should think that swearing is interdicted just in this room, while the rest---everywhere. But in:

    you must not smoke, or drink liquours, but you may wear shorts, or tennis shoes,, in this room

    the double comma after 'shoes' is necessary to make clear that both norms ('you must not...' and 'you may..') regulate the activities engaged-in in this room only. (Otherwise someone might think that you must not smoke or drink everywhere, but may wear shorts or tennis shoes just in this room).

    I am saying this tongue-in-cheek, of course. Yet scope problems in real language are real, alas, as everyone who has to write serious texts knows all too well...

    Ad David Crosbie

    Yes, but if so, 'Coroner's Office' or such should be, despite your 'laxism' on rules, the only-correct spelling, no? And isn't the famous book by Fowler Bros entitled 'King's English'?

    -s alone reminds me painfully of the Dutch adjectival suffix -s, like in 'Pools' (Polish), or for that matter 'Engels' (English) or 'vooroorlogs'(antebellum, pre-war), which is what is left in that language of the older -isk, German -isch, English -ish.

  34. Wojciech

    It depends what sort of office you mean. A physical room in a physical building may belong to two coroners. In that case it would be the coroner's office — or in certain circumstances a coroners' office.

    Without an article (or any other determiner) the phrase is bound to be a notice or letter heading or similar. Whatever sort of text, it has no syntax. And this sort of text has generic reference — otherwise it would be something like Office of John Smith, Coroner.

    Since generic reference can use plural forms, there's nothing to stop a writer spelling Coroners' Office — meaning 'This office is occupied by people who are coroners'.

  35. sorry, I meant 'coroner's court'. In this case, or so would I understand it, 'coroner' refers to the one 'office' (in the Ciceronian sense: 'de officis', I think it goes back to the Stoic 'kathekon') of coroner, which is as much one as one was the ancient King of France. Not the person or persons such as John Bull or James Frog who just happen to hold that office, of course. In that latter case, 'Coroners' Court' would seem more apposite.

  36. Reply to Steve:
    Just seen your comment on my comment. I was quoting from my battered copy of "A History of the English Language" by Albert C. Baugh, but no doubt there are now more recent works on the same topic. (Just looked on Amazon - I see Baugh's book has been updated since I was at university in the 70s.) The history of the apostrophe in English would be a worthy subject for somebody's thesis. Too complex to get into as a comment on a blog!

  37. The established term is coroner's office. That the other spellings are justifiable surely eases mistakes. Still, the non-standard spellers don't choose their spelling because they're too familiar with pre-1750 texts in the original but because they're not familiar enough with 2011 texts.

    I'd like to make clear that I don't mean to judge, and that there are certainly issues more worthwhile founding or joining a society for.

  38. 'non-standard spellers don't choose their spelling because they're too familiar with pre-1750 texts'

    the very idea of them being familiar with pre-1750 texts elicits a smile.... It's like Fowler Bros fighting 'I guess' in British English and saying that while the phrase is common in Chaucer, the Britons who use it have it from American English rather than from Chaucer.

  39. Anna Lowentein

    The history of the apostrophe in English is treated concisely and clearly in David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.. There's an even briefer account in Wikipedia.

    The history isn't all that difficult, provided that you start at the beginning when things were simple, and then note each new development and the complication it causes. In fact the best starting point is when the French invented the apostrophe — the simplest time of the lot.

  40. With apologies that I haven't read all the above responses, which may already have answered this: as regards Gardener-s/'s/s' Question Time, I would definitely write "Gardeners' Question Time". I believe that the ear is often a better judge of what's correct than trying to think too hard about it, so always try to reduce it to an example where the different options sound different. If hypothetically there was a question time for children, then it would be "children's question time", and both "child's question time" and "children question time" sound wrong to varying degrees.

  41. Re "sports day", I agree with you. Although it's a different conclusion from "gardeners' question time", I think that the ear test that I propose still works here.

    It's perhaps hard to convince oneself analytically *why* we would use "sports" adjectivally in "sports day" but not "gardeners" in the other example. However, to choose a sufficiently analagous example, that of a day for football, the ear says that you would say "football day" and not "football's day".

    Clearly the "football" test case has only two options, and if we did settle on "football's day" then we would still need a separate means to choose between "sport's day" and "sports' day", but fortunately this doesn't arise.

  42. It is a court where coroners do their thing. A sign that stated that would be verbose, and economics would make the lettering small. So make the words brief, the sentence elliptic, and the sign big enough to give effective navigational guidance to those who want/need to be where inquests are held. So ellipt to Court Coroners, make Court the head, invert order to the canonical, and we have Coroners Court, and nobody is misdirected, and all have the information they need writ large, with few being under the delusion that coroners are dab hands at seduction, or are so prolific in their criminal activity that they need a special court to accommodate them.

  43. You are a super-star! I have a phone call from this service and they told me that my work has done!


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