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

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
42, 20 June 2024

The icon of Saint Sylianos on the Deacon’s Door in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Before today begins (20 June 2024), I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

A detail in the icon of Saint Stylianos in the new iconostasis in the Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 6: 7-15 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be revered as holy.
10 May your kingdom come.
May your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

A second icon of Saint Stylianos in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 5: Saint Stylianos:

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates facing the people is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford is dedicated to Saint Ambrosis (Ambrose) and Saint Sylianos. The icon of Saint Stylianos, the second icon in the first tier in new iconostasis in Stony Stratford, is on the ‘Deacon’s Door,’ between the icons of the Dormition and of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary.

Saint Stylianos (Στυλιανός) is the protector of babies and children, especially orphansand popular with pregnant mothers too. His feast is on 26 November. Saint Stylianos is known as a protector of children. He is depicted in iconography holding a swaddled infant in his arms, including the icon in the iconostasis and other icons in the church in Stony Stratford.

Saint Stylianos of Paphlagonia, as he is named on the icons in Stony Stratford, is also known as Saint Stylianos the Hermit. He was born in Adrianopolis sometime in the fifth century. He distributed his inheritance among the poor and left the city to live in a monastery. There, his devotion and asceticism provoked jealousy on the part of other monks, and so he left the monastery to live as a hermit in a cave in the wilderness, where he spent his time in prayer and fasting.

In the peace of the desert, Saint Stylianos had time to observe creation and meditate upon it, and he saw the Creator in all things. His holiness was evident to the people of the surrounding area, who came to listen to his teaching or to be cured through his prayers. He often left his hermitage to make pastoral visits to neighbouring villages.

Saint Stylianos was also known for his love of children and he is celebrated for his gift of healing children by his prayers. Parents would travel great distances seeking a cure for their children. He also had the reputation of a wonder-worker because his prayers seemed to help childless couples have a child.

The three icons to the left on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) the Dormition, Saint Stylianos and the Theotokos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 20 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Thursday 20 June 2024, World Refugee Day) invites us to pray:

We pray for all who have been forced to leave their homes to make long journeys to safety. We pray for all who spend all they have and risk their lives to flee. May we listen to their stories and respond with love and kindness.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy … the icon of Saint Stylianos is on the half-open Deacon’s Door to the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

An icon of Saint Stylianos (left) with Saint Ambrosios and the Theotokos in the former, informal iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A second icon of Saint Stylianos can be seen behind the new candle burner in the Orthodox Church of Saint Ambrosios and Saint Stylianos in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.