Teachers at Work

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Signs of Possessiveness: The Revenge of the Apostrophe

Worthies from the County of Devon in southwest England caused a bit of a ruckus recently when the local government announced that they were abandoning the use of the apostrophe on all street signs in the county. This, they claimed, was to avoid "the confusion" that they thought its retention would bring. What's more — or more inaccurately "whats more" — they said that this was merely a clarifiction of what had been common practice for a long time. So Baker's Road, Bishop's Square and Dobb's Green were all to be dispossessed by a flourish of the civic pen, and they would join the similarly denuded names of major stores that have also decided that the humble apostrophe isn't quite corporate enough.

I remember a recent battle with a graphic design company who had decided that World Teachers' Day should lose its possessive on the grounds that it simply wasn't sexy enough, and the inclusion of  ' only upset the careful spacing of the letters. As a vocal group of outraged language teachers, we managed to create enough red faces at the graphic design company for them to grudgingly withdraw their proposal.

Similarly, howls of outrage greeted Devon County Council's ill-advised decision to rob the country of its grammatical competence, and not a few of the grammar police have been quick to point out that what this decision really amounted to was a cover up for ignorance on the correct use of an important aspect of English grammar. One local radio station even decided to protest by playing, for a whole day, only pop music with apostrophes in the titles of the songs. As it turned out, most of the apostrophes in the song titles marked an abbreviation rather than a possessive, but it all helped to drive the message home, and the local authorities eventually backed down, shame-faced into submission, and the apostrophe will remain rampant on Devon's highways and byways.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that the Devonshire authorities decided on this course of action to begin with. There has always been a bit of a stigma attached to the misuse of certain grammatical features, and guffaws at the perennial signs advertising potato's, tomato's and carrot's on market stalls are common. What's more, the digital era has made it easy to make up your own grammar rules — or lack of them — and text messages and emails stripped bare of commas, apostrophes and full stops are common enough.

No doubt our Devonshire worthies thought they were simply taking the next logical step. What it does expose, though, is the uncertainty with which this grammatical item is treated in the general population. Nothing is surer to provoke uncertainty than whether or not to place an apostrophe, particularly when a possessive is implied. If native speakers get it wrong all the time (to the point when they try to ban them) then what hope for learners of the language?

The basic rules seems simple enough: 's implies the possession by a singular object of something, while s' implies the possession of more than one object of something. Hence, the Devon councillor's opinions on the matter. tells us that one councillor had opinions, while the Devon councillors' opinions on the matter tells us that more than one councillor had opinions. It sounds simple enough, so obviously there is more at stake than just this simple rule, though this simple rule can have its complications. For example, in the following phrase:

The constituent's representative's opinions
(one constituent has a representative with opinions)

could easily become:

The constituents' representative's opinions
(many constituents have one representative with opinions)

The constituent's representatives' opinions
(one constituent has many representatives with opinions)

The constituents' representatives' opinions
(many constituents have many representatives with opinions)

The little apostrophe thus wields great power!

One of the most common misuses of the possessive apostrophe can occur in place names, so in a sense you can see what Devon Country Council were worried about. It's a tricky issue for language learners too, and translators of guide books frequently run into problems in this area. I was recently helping a local tourist company with one of their English-language leaflets, and they were proudly proclaiming that day trippers on their river boats could experience going through what they translated as Valeira's Lock. It caused me to pause. Surely it should be Valeira Lock. It is common to refer to something adopting a local place name by creating a noun-noun collocation rather than a possessive (Piccadilly Circus, Victoria Station, Brooklyn Bridge). The relationship is adjectival, not possessive.

On the other hand, when personal names are involved, then the possessive will sometimes make a bid for inclusion — St John's Hospital, King George's School, Bishop's Library. In these cases, a bit of historical digging will find that there is a connection (usually at the time of foundation) allowing a sense of ownership to emerge: the hospital is seen as being under the protection of St John, the school was originally founded under the patronage of King George and the library was originally owned by the bishop.

In other cases, though, the possessive is not used, and this can simply mean a mark of remembrance or homage: Connelly Station, George Washington High School, Macquarie University. Some issues, it seems, require a slightly subjective view of the idea of possession plus, perhaps, some basic knowledge of history. My favorite example of getting this wrong was in the neighboring county to Devon — Cornwall — where the legendary King Arthur (of Round Table fame) is said to have held court in the splendid, now ruined castle in Tintagel. Nearby, for the benefit of visitors, is King Arthur's Car Park. I don't think even the magical Merlin had managed to provide Arthur with a motor vehicle and the idea of the illustrious monarch owning a car which he parked around the back is an apostrophe too far.

It's a potentially tricky area, but one which requires perseverance not prevarication. Used properly, the apostrophe brings clarity and precision not confusion, as the Devon councillors claimed. Then again, why on earth anyone would want to receive guidance on an aspect of grammar — or any other topic — from a bunch of politicians beats me.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.