As you may know, I am something of a campaigner AGAINST the possessive apostrophe. I am on record as saying
People, even literate ones, get very confused about apostrophes. Let's abolish them.
Before reading further, see if you know, or can guess, which of the following Underground stations are written with an apostrophe, and which not. Then check with the official tube map.
- Parsons Green
- Kings Cross
- Colliers Wood
- Carpenders Park
- Queens Park
- Canons Park
- Golders Green
- Gallions Reach
Suppose you are on a shopping trip, and want to visit the ˈbeɪkəz. Should that be the baker’s (‘the shop of the baker’) or the bakers’ (‘the shop of the bakers’)? Or is it just the bakers you want to visit, i.e. the people who bake, rather than their shop?
The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can’t hear it in speech. Therefore we could perfectly well get along without it in writing.
Ah, you will say, but sometimes it has a real usefulness, to distinguish between a singular and a plural possessor. The Guardian Book of the English Language (2007), edited by my former student David Marsh, puts it like this:
Nonsense. You can’t tell these apart in speech. In speech, if ambiguity threatens, we disambiguate by paraphrasing. It makes sense to do the same in writing: the investments made by
- my sister and her friend
- my sister and her friends
- my sisters and their friend
- my sisters and their friends.
On the BBC1 TV news yesterday my colleague Rob Drummond insisted, correctly I believe, that whether or not a street sign has an apostrophe is really no big deal, and that many apostrophes are ambiguous at best and unnecessary at worst.
But I believe he didn’t go far enough. I would argue myself that the possessive apostrophe gives people such problems and is of such little importance that we would do better simply to abolish it.
It would be absurd to force Boots the Chemist to introduce an apostrophe into their name, even though Boots started as the shop of one John Boot. With the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s (sic) there is even an issue over what apostrophe would logically be required. The company was indeed founded by one Sainsbury (and his wife — that makes two), but there are now several Sainsbury family shareholders, not to mention many non-Sainsburys, of whom the largest is the Qatar Investment Authority.
American readers can meanwhile meditate about Bloomingdale’s (sic) and Barneys New York (sic).
There is one circumstance in which a possessive apostrophe does have a phonetic correlate (and might reasonably therefore be retained): after a stem ending in a sibilant with no following letter e, as in church’s. Even here, however, the possessive singular is pronounced identically with the plural (and possessive plural): church’s is homophonous with churches and churches’, and could therefore be identically spelt. The only really awkward cases are proper names like Ross’s, complementing the already awkward Jones’s (or Jones’), this possessive being homophonous with the Joneses we may be tempted to keep up with. There’s no problem in writing St Georges or St Johns.
At least if we officially abolished possessive apostrophes then those who worry about such things would no longer be tormented by superfluous “greengrocers’” apostrophes and by people who write it’s when they ought to write its.