20 June 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
43, apostrophe, ἀποστροφή

A parking sign in Navan, Co Meath … surely there was more than one visitor and one car? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

North Yorkshire Council recently created arguments and a lengthy public debate when it decided to eliminate apostrophes from street names, because they and other punctuation marks, apparently, don’t conform with geographical databases.

In Harrogate, for example, a new sign for St Mary’s Walk was changed to ‘St Marys Walk.’ But this was derided as a sign of the general decay of literacy in today’s England.

The apostrophe (' or ’) is a punctuation mark, and sometimes a diacritical mark, in languages that use the Latin alphabet and some other alphabets. In English, the apostrophe is used in five principal way:

• to mark the omission of one or more letters, such as the contraction of ‘do not’ to ‘don’t’ or 2024 or ’24
• to mark the of possessive case of nouns, as in ‘Patrick’s blog posting,’ ‘yesterday’s news’ or ‘the politicians’ promises and lies’
• as part of some Irish surnames such as O’Brien and O’Neill
• to represent feet and inches in length, as in 5’ 8” for 5 ft 8 in
• in single ‘quotation’ marks

More than one Saint Patrick? How many friars? … a street sign in Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But in its original use in the English language, the apostrophe is an exclamatory figure of speech. It happens when a speaker breaks off from addressing the audience and turns to speak someone else. This seems closer to the Greek origins of the word: the Greek word ἀποστροφή (apostrophe) means ‘turning away’.

The word comes into English through the Latin apostropha or apostrophe from the Greek ἀποστροφή (apostrophḗ), from ἀποστρέφω (apostréphō), ‘to turn away’), from ἀπό (apó), ‘from’ or ‘away’, and στρέφω (stréphō), ‘I turn’.

In other words, the word apostrophe comes ultimately from the Greek ἡ ἀπόστροφος προσῳδία (hē apóstrophos prosōidía), 'the accent of turning away or elision.’

In a similar way, the word catastrophe is derived from the Greek καταστροφή (katastrophḗ), from καταστρέφω (katastréphō, ‘I overturn’), from κατά (kata, ‘down’ or ‘against’) and στρέφω (stréphō, ‘I turn’).

The apostrophe as we use it in punctuation was introduced into French by Geoffroy Tory in 1529), when it was used in place of a vowel letter to indicate elision, as in l’heure in place of la heure. It was also frequently used in place of a final E, which was still pronounced at the time, when it was elided before a vowel, as in un’ heure. Modern French orthography has restored the spelling une heure.

The apostrophe was first used by Pietro Bembo in his edition of De Aetna (1496). It was introduced into English in the 16th century in imitation of French practice, when the apostrophe was used when a vowel letter was omitted either because of incidental elision (‘I’m’ for ‘I am’), or because the letter no longer represented a sound (‘lov’d’ for ‘loved’).

The contraction who’re for ‘who are’ takes on a whole new meaning if we leave out the apostrophe.

What did she really want? … a sign seen in a window in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By the 18th century, an apostrophe with the addition of an S was regularly used for all possessive singular forms. The apostrophe was used after the plural S for possessive plural forms, although this was not universally accepted until the mid-19th century.

Of course ‘possessive apostrophe’ can seem silly, almost inexplicable, as in ‘yesterday’s news’ – yesterday does not own the news, and they never will. But then, that’s a discussion about why 18th century grammarians began to refer to the genitive case as the possessive case. And if we could recall all our yesterdays, would they own the news as yesterdays’ news?

And who decided on the convention that we do not use an apostrophe when we say ours rather than our’s, yours rather your’s, his rather than he’s, hers instead of her’s, its instead of it’s – when it’s has a very different meaning – or their’s instead of theirs, yet we say children’s, women’s and men’s when they are plurals without an S ending, rather than childrens’, womens’ and mens’.

Let me add that keying in that last conundrum was a nightmare, as autocorrect tried to correct each one of these examples.

A subeditor confused the possessive apostrophe and the plural S in the headline on one of my first newspaper features in the Lichfield Mercury in October 1971

If a singular noun ends with an S, practice varies as to whether to add ’S or the apostrophe alone: do you say Saint James’ Gate or Saint James’s Gate, Guinness’ stout or Guinness’s stout, or even Guinnesses or Guinnesses’ stout?

After all, I know of Dubliners who refer to Stephenses Green and Stephenses Day, and even to Stevenses Hospital.

And if dice is the plural of die, mice the plural of mouse, and pence the plural of penny, how and when, if ever, do I use an apostrophe? I’m only asking so that I get my tuppence’s worth and do not get my comeuppance.

The plural of trade union is trades union, of father-in-law is fathers-in-law, and of Attorney General is Attorneys General. But whoever speaks of the Attorney’s Geneal office, or the father’s-in-law daughter?

What about when two people share ownership? My father and mother’s home? Or my father’s and mother’s home? His and her children, but not his and her’s children?

If you’re as old as I am, do you speak of the 1960s or the 1960’s? Cliff Richards’s records? The Irish Times’ stylebook, or The Irish Times stylebook? Moses’ law or Moses law? Jesus’ new commandment, Jesus’s new commandment, or simply Jesus new commandment?

Descartes’s and Dumas’s place in French literary legacy? Socrates’ or Socrates’s wisdom?

The United States’ next president – and the catastrophe that this may create)?

Both panini’s and paninis are wrong gramatically (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Why are Earl’s Court and Barons Court neighbouring stations on the Piccadilly line?

Why do some people shop at Sainsbury’s and others at Harrods, Currys, and Selfridges? Why is it Marks and Spencer, but not Marks and Spencers, and never Mark’s and Spencer’s or even Marks’ and Spencers’?

Why is the Apostrophe Protection Society not the Apostrophe’s Protection Society, or even the Apostrophes’ Protection Society?

When did we stop referring to the ’phone or the ’bus or to ’flu? Why is shan’t not spelled as sha’n’t if we cannot spell out shall not?

Do you know which of Queens’ College and Queen’s College is in Oxford or Cambridge? Is it St Alban’s Cathedral or St Albans Cathedral? And did you know Saint Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge is truly Saint Benedict’s?

If we eliminate apostrophes in all names, what happens to Kitty O’Shea and Brian O’Driscoll?

Should I mind my ps and qs or my p’s and q’s?

And shopfronts would be less entertaining and amusing without the grocer’s apostrophe’s above the apple’s and orange’s in the window’s.

Nor should we forget the literary origin of the words apostrophe and catastrophe in στρέφω (stréphō), ‘I turn’.

A strophe (στροφή) is the first stanza in a traditional ancient Greek ode. These odes were recited by a chorus and were used to celebrate victories, the natural world, and the achievements of extraordinary people. They were also commonly found in the opening ode of ancient Greek tragedy plays.

Together with its partners, the antistrophe and the epode, the strophe was part of the Pindaric ode. This elaborate lyrical poem celebrated victories and commemorated the victors.

The Four Apostrophe’s of the Apocalypse’s, but not for Goodwyn’s in Brierly Hill … shared widely on social media postings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and turning aside. Indeed, I hear few people today talking regularly about the strophe the antistrophe.

When I was back in Crete a few weeks ago, I found myself re-reading some of the poems of the Greek poet Giorgios Seferis (1900-1971), one of the two Greek poets to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His collection Στροφή (Strophe, Turning Point), was published in 1931. The title poem is:


Στιγμή, σταλμένη απο ένα χέρι
που είχα τόσο αγαπήσει
με πρόφταξες ίσια στη δύση
σα μαύρο περιστέρι

Ο δρόμος άσπριζε μπροστά μου,
απαλός αχνός ύπνου
στο γέρμα του μυστικού δείπνου
Στιγμή σπυρί της άμμου,

που κράτησες μονάχη σου όλη
την τραγική κλεψύδρα
βουβή, σα να είχε δει την Υδρα
στο ουράνιο περιβόλι


Moment sent by a hand
that I had so much loved
you reached me almost at dusk
like a black dove

The road shone before me
soft breath of sleep
at the end of a secret feast …
Moment grain of sand

that you alone kept
the tragic clepsydra whole
silent as though it had seen Hydra
in the heavenly orchard.

Previous word: 42, Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή

Next word: 44, catastrophe, καταστροφή

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