Is there an ' in apostrophes?

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Why is there one in Achille's heel but not in Achilles tendon? Bob Smith (right) takes you into a world of clitics, enclitics and awkward sods to unravel the simple rules of grammar

The other meaning of apostrophe is what you use when you talk to mother nature. As Wordsworth does here to a skylark: "Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!" And to a flower: "Sweet Daisy! oft I talk to thee" and ethereal bodies: "Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe! Thou soul, that art the eternity of thought".

And here's the apostrophe in a different kind of poem:

A sunburnt bloody stockman stood,

And in a dismal bloody mood

Apostrophised his bloody cuddy:

'This bloody moke's no bloody good,

He doesn't earn his bloody food.'

(A cuddy and a moke, incidentally, is a horse.) But this meaning of apostrophe, addressing a person or thing rhetorically, isn't what troubles people. Doubt enters people's minds deciding whether the comma comes before or after the s when it expresses possession.

We feel superior when see "potatoe's 3 kg a pound;" because "potatoes" is obviously plural and doesn't need an apostrophe. Plurals are usually formed by adding an s and that's all there is to it.

Similarly, people aren't in doubt when the apostrophe marks a contraction, such as "don't" for "do not". But when we write a name commonly given to the misused possessive apostrophe, we might hesitate. Is it "the grocer's apostrophe" or "the grocers' apostrophe"?

At this point it's worth mentioning that it isn't an arbitrary mark but, like its use in "it's", meaning "it is", it marks a missing letter. In Anglo-Saxon (more correctly, Old English), possession was expressed by the genitive case: "Godes engel" meant "God's angel". In time, the "e" was dropped and the missing letter marked by the apostrophe. This, however, fails to explains where the apostrophe goes in the plural. It seems to be a convention which grew up much later.

You will possibly come across grammarians of a more modern school who say the - 's doesn't mark possession but is a clitic, something that belongs to the previous word. For the record, ancient Greek has a variation on this called an enclitic. You don't want to go there do you? What people do want to know is whether the apostrophe comes before or after the s.

If it's singular, it comes before and if it's plural it comes after. So "a grocer's apostrophe", something done by a single, particular grocer. But if everyone in the market puts them in, then it's "grocers' apostrophes". We do, however, tend to talk about "the grocer's apostrophe" for the general practice, condensing all grocers into one.

Here's another example. "A girl's book" one girl, so the apostrophe goes before the s, but "a girls' school", lots of girls so after the s. And "an NQT's workload", one of them, but "an NQTs' meeting", lots of them meeting.

This covers about 75 per cent of cases.

Now two exceptions. If, unlike most words, the plural does not end in an s, then the possessive is always - 's: "A child's book" but "children's books", "a woman's rights and "women's rights". And common pronouns - "hers, ours, theirs, yours" - don't have an apostrophe.

That now covers about 95 per cent of cases.

But, as this is English, there's a rag-bag of awkward little sods. The words in some set expressions have become so tied together that there's no apostrophe. So we have "Brussels sprouts" where you might expect "Brussel's sprouts" and "Achilles tendon" but "Achilles' heel". Names can be similarly wayward. On the London underground there's "St James's Park" but "Earls Court".

While talking of Achilles just now, this is the point to remember that names from classical mythology and the Bible don't end in "s's" so "Venus'

rites", and "Moses' law", but "for God's sake". With "sake", follow your pronunciation, so "for goodness' sake". With more modern names it can be either - s' or s's: "Dickens' novels" or "Dickens's novels".

People are sometimes reluctant to use the apostrophe where numbers are involved, but "a fortnight's holiday", "a pound's worth" and "two pounds'

worth" all imply possession: "a fortnight of holiday", "a value of two pounds".

And you say "I'm going to the grocer's" because it implies "the grocer's shop". Store names - Woolworths, Macdonald's - are decided by PR people and just have to be remembered. In "the boss's car" and "Tess's laptop", the triple s looks strange but is right. The plural of "boss" is "bosses" so it's "bosses' cars".

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (pound;14.99) explains all the above very succinctly under "possessive".You should also check: ESL http:webster,commnet.edugrammarmarksapostrophe.htm

That poem about the stockman isn't as well known as it might be, so here's the remaining two stanzas. It's called The Australian Poem and it's by Anon.

He leapt upon his bloody horse

And galloped off of bloody course.

The road was wet and bloody muddy,

It led him to the bloody creek.

The bloody horse was bloody weak.

Bloody, bloody, bloody.

He said 'This bloody steed must swim,

The same for me as bloody him.'

The creek was deep and bloody floody,

So ere they reached the bloody bank

The bloody steed beneath him sank,

The stockman's face a bloody study.

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