The History of the Apostrophe
In this interview about his book Bad English, Ammon Shea explains the many ways people have been confused about apostrophes over the centuries.
This is an abridged transcript of an interview with Ammon Shea, the author of Bad English, about his chapter on apostrophes. Use the player in the upper right sidebar to listen to the whole interview. It begins at about the 2-minute mark.
Mignon: In your book, you say that people have been complaining about apostrophes for a long time.
Ammon: Ever since their introduction into the language, apostrophes have kind of shifted and changed, and they’ve never been subject to any sort of agreement.
Mignon: So the French hoisted them upon us?
Ammon: It was either the French or the Italians … Many people think it was a French printer, Geoffrey Tory, who also introduced us to the cedilla and the accent. He used it in 1529 in French, so it was definitely in use at that point.
Mignon: In the beginning, it was clear how to use the apostrophe?
Ammon: Well, not quite. It’s never actually been clear. It first came into English about 30 years later … We used it when we left out a letter or several letters, so that was fairly clear... Of course, we’re also talking about a time when only a small percentage of the population was literate, so for most people, the apostrophe had no great impact on their lives.
Mignon: OK, and you said that by the Restoration, people were getting carried away with apostrophes.
Ammon: Once you start using it, I guess it’s like crack. It’s kind of addictive. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has some wonderful examples. I’fac was found, which I’m pretty sure means "in fact." My favorite is ‘zbud, which is an abbreviated form of "God’s blood." Of course, this is also at a point where spelling isn’t exactly consistent, so you mix an indefinite spelling system and free use of apostrophes and things can get tricky.
Mignon: I was surprised to read that some people initially considered the possessive apostrophe to be an error.
Ammon: It kind of came late to the party. One thing that has been noted is that Shakespeare’s first folio in 1623, only about four percent of the words that today we would give possessive apostrophes to in the possessive case, like Othello’s or Romeo’s heart, have one.
It’s not very common at the beginning of the seventeenth century and it took a while to catch on, and there was confusion and consternation because people didn’t really know what the apostrophe was doing in the possessive, the genitive case … Some people thought it was a mark of elision, so the king’s book was a shortening of the king his book. Some people think that what the apostrophe is doing is going back to our Old English roots. It was common in the masculine and neuter genitive cases, the king’s book ,for example, to add an -es at the end of the noun to show possession. So if you look at it that way, it makes sense. We’re taking out the e and putting in an apostrophe, and that’s why we have king’s. It’s a good theory, I think a lot of people who pay attention to this subscribe to that theory. But there was no real agreement that this was OK, and then when people started getting comfortable with it, some people would say, “Sure, we can do it for singular nouns, but we can’t do it for plural nouns. That’s madness!” I don’t understand why they got so worked up about it, but it was a big deal.
Mignon: Was this in the eighteenth century?
Mignon: Grammarians were arguing about a lot of thing then, right?
Ammon: They were fighting about the color of their socks back then. Anything they could get a fight out of they would grab, and none of them agreed with each other. People were writing entire books just attacking their predecessors position on what to do with the genitive apostrophe and a singular noun. They’d fight over anything they could.
Mignon: Even today the apostrophe is in flux. You talk about how writing decades has changed.
Ammon: Right. Several decades ago you would write 1950’s (with the apostrophe) and that is generally not the case now . . . A lot of department stores are starting to drop their apostrophes … I just noticed that Marshalls department store does not use an apostrophe, but I’m pretty sure they used to . . . I’ve seen a number of old newspaper articles referring to Marshall’s where it did have an apostrophe. … I think it would not be surprising if this happened more and more frequently since we do not use apostrophes in typing URLs, and then once you see that you don’t need it, it’s very easy to do away with it in other contexts.
Mignon: To end, you say that we’re even flummoxed by how to pronounce the word apostrophe. Set me straight.
Ammon: If anybody does correct you on how you use your apostrophes, you can turn around and correct them on how they pronounce it. The first edition of the OED had a peevish and querulous editorial note, one of the very few that they have in that dictionary, under apostrophe, where the editor, James Murray, said that it should be pronounced as the French pronounce it—three syllables with the emphasis on the final syllable. app-o-stroph.
Thanks again, to Ammon Shea, the author of Bad English.
Quotation image made with Pinstamatic.