From A to Z;Primary

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Sue Palmer's weekly guide to the alphabet.

S is a sexy, sassy, scintillating sort of letter. OK, I admit to a soft spot for this one, having sported an initial S all my life, but it is special in all sorts of ways. Most children learn s in seconds, since its sensuous snake-like sound suggests its sinuous, serpentine shape. But it's also a seriously busy letter, the most common of the consonants, with a catalogue of different jobs.

To start with, it participates in an important consonant digraph (sh) and hisses away in a host of initial blends (st, sm, sp, sl, sc, sk, sn, sw, str, spr, spl) and quite a lot of final ones (-sk, -st, -sp and the -sm of -ism).

It does plenty of double acts: at the end of one-syllable words for instance, mass, mess, miss, moss and muss; to signal feminine nouns actress, lioness, and in the suffixes -ness and -less. Single s also appears for diverse reasons on the ends of words. As every Scrabble player knows, you can add it to a verb to create the present tense, or to a noun to create a regular plural. You can also use it, together with an apostrophe, to signal the shortened forms of is, has and us (it's, she's, let's) or a possessive noun (eg, a singular dog's dinner or a plural dogs' dinner).

Sadly, therefore, final s leads us to a grammatical dog's breakfast. For many people, not least greengrocers, this plethora of different uses has become a source of utter confusion. As proprietor of the Mid-Cornwall Home for Abused Apostrophes, I tend to a constant stream of misuses, including Cream tea's and More dresse's upstair's. Sad that s, the sensational super-consonant, should be constrained to participate in such syntactic sin. Ssssssssss to abusers everywhere!

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