It’s only a little mark, but its misuse arouses more bad temper among purists than any other punctuation. (That introduction brings to mind the irregular conjugation: “I am a careful writer; you are a purist; he is a pedant”.)
The biggest mistake, and one of some antiquity, is to include an apostrophe in a word which is a simple plural: tomato’s 30p. This is so common a misuse in displays of fruit and vegetables outside shops that it has been dignified by the name greengrocer’s apostrophe in Britain. A famous example appeared in a press release from the Department of Education in 1993: “I will produce for parent’s an annual report ...”; what a pity it was in a transcript of a speech by the Minister about the need for good standards in writing. Another common mistake is to confuse it’s and its, the former being a contraction of it is and the latter a possessive pronoun. So you see daft phrases such as “its time to go home” or “the dog has lost it’s bone”. A third is to confuse whose with who’s, the latter being an abbreviation for “who is”.
Special problems arise when you create possessives for names already ending in s. Is it Charles’ Wain or Charles’s Wain? The latter sounds and looks better. Is it St James’s Street or St James’ Street? Custom and rhythm combine in urging the former. Jones’s house indicates that only one person named Jones lives there; if a family does, it should be the Joneses’ house, which sounds the same but looks odd on the page. Until recently, the usual form was Jesus’, not Jesus’s, but this tradition, which has been described in Hart’s Rules as “an acceptable liturgical archaism”, was finally broken in the New English Bible of the mid-sixties.
Despite this special case, there’s a tendency towards using just a terminating apostrophe in names ending in s. A particularly annoying example is that of a famous London hospital; when I was very young and had been mildly naughty, my father, a true-bred Londoner, would jokingly offer me his clenched fists, naming one sudden death and the other St Thomas’s Hospital. It’s been called that for generations, the final s improving the flow of the name, but it is now officially run by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital NHS Trust.
Even more problems arise when you’re not sure about the origin of the name. One of the colleges of Cambridge University is, correctly, Queens’ College, because it was founded by two queens (the Oxford one had only one royal benefactor, so it is The Queen’s College). And what of November 5? Is it Guy Fawkes’ Day or Guy Fawkes’s Day? The one certain thing is that it isn’t Guy Fawke’s Day, because his name was Fawkes, with the s already on. And what does one do about Lloyd’s, the famous insurance market in London? How do you make a possessive from that? “Names are complaining that some Lloyd’s’s syndicates were badly managed”? The style guide of the Economist says “try to avoid using [it] as a possessive; it poses an insoluble problem”.
The British newspaper the Independent on Sunday reported in 1997 that a trend is emerging for publishers to use fewer apostrophes, the comment being provoked by the decision of Antonia Fraser to leave out the one after Fawkes in her new book The Gunpowder Plot. But the evidence shows that possessive apostrophes have been dropping like flies for years. Advertising fashion has eroded apostrophes from the names of many firms, as with Harrods (someone stole that apostrophe many years ago, so weakening the store’s link with the late Mr Henry Harrod), and such common British High Street names as Boots, Currys, Debenhams, Barclays Bank and a host of small shops named Browns, Trumans and their like. The names of bodies such as the Patients Association show a marked trend towards eliminating what’s seen as a fussy irrelevance.
It has long been common to leave them out of placenames, though custom plays a particularly powerful role here — why else would London have the Lord’s Cricket Ground but Earls Court? In January 2009 Birmingham City Council officially abolished the mark, at least in road and street signs, so that notices referring to such local places as Kings Heath, Acocks Green (named after the Acock family) and Kings Norton should in future be free of those annoying little flyspecks, about which another councillor said, “I don’t see the point of them.” Cllr Mullaney said the Council had been removing apostrophes since the 1950s and that the latest ruling formalised existing practice. Leaving apostrophes out is now common in those countries that, unlike the UK, have a national body that supervises place names and decrees standards. The US Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of apostrophes since its formation in 1890 (though five exceptions have been allowed, the most recent being Clark’s Mountain in Oregon in 2002). Australia has a similar rule in the Guidelines for the Consistent Use of Place Names, which is published by the Committee for Geographical Names in Australia. Its guidance explains that leaving them out “facilitates the consistent matching and retrieval of place names in database systems such as those used by the emergency services.”
My impression is that fashion, the real difficulties that exist in some cases, and — particularly — the absence of firm teaching of grammar and punctuation in school, are all leading to an accelerating decline in the correct use of the mark, despite efforts by bodies such as the Apostrophe Protection Society. A survey in Britain in November 2008 found that nearly half of adults were unable to use it according to the standard rules.
On the other hand, linguist David Crystal has pointed out that those rules only became standardised in the middle of the nineteenth century, even though the mark had by then been around for centuries. The apostrophe may prove to have had merely a temporary role in the language. From time to time, writers even advocate abolishing it completely, as Christopher Howse did in the Daily Telegraph in 2008. Other experts have forecast for many years that, under the influence of the greengrocer’s apostrophe, it may sometime soon become a marker for the plural rather than the possessive. We’re some way from that yet, but the signs are there. It might be better to lose it altogether than have it suffer that fate.