Apostrophe catastrophe

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A little twist to the Word for Wednesday blog this week: we’ll be looking into the grammatical enigma that is the apostrophe.

This week, the government has introduced a new spelling and grammar test for primary school children across the UK.

Last year, Education Secretary, Michael Gove introduced a new policy which penalises students for poor spelling and grammar in their national examinations. This is the first time such emphasis has been put onto correct spelling and grammar in the education system.

In my opinion, one of the biggest culprits for poor grammar is the misuse of the apostrophe. This is so widespread that one need’nt look far (did you spot it?) to find an incorrectly placed apostrophe.

The word apostrophe comes from the Greek ‘apostrophos’ meaning ‘turning away’.

This makes sense of one of the apostrophe's correct uses - an indication that we have ‘turned away’ from or omitted one or more letters in a word. Need not becomes needn’t; the apostrophe replaces the ‘o’ but how do you explain that will not becomes won’t? This is partly to do with the conventions of the language, which wouldn’t allow willn’t as a word.

Apostrophes are also used to signify possession. For example, the sonnets belonging to Shakespeare become Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Problems arise with names or words ending in an s. We might say James’s bag but it is more appropriate to write James’ bag.

The most favourite misuse of the apostrophe is in everyday plurals when neither possession nor omission is relevant. Some recent examples include ladie’s, video’s, movie’s and even apostrophe’s!

BBC News posted a very interesting article about apostrophes and the importance of good grammar in everyday life here.

As a student, the first image of the article actually makes me cringe. No taxpayer should have to fund the university education of a student carrying a banner proclaiming Down with fee’s.

Check out this website for some absolute corkers too!

Hugh MacDermott


15 May 2013
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