Apostrophes have been in the news again lately. Cambridge City Council made the papers back in February when it reversed its (no apostrophe required) decision to remove apostrophes from its new street signs. There were audible cheers from champions of plain English, fans of grammar and politicians, led by the Plain English Campaign, who had been outraged by their initial decision to ban them: ‘Where’s it going to stop. Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?’ It had even turned some angry residents into vigilantes as they took to the street with their marker pens, writing the apostrophes back in where they were missing.
The sometimes vexing question of where and when to add an apostrophe will also be on the agenda at Mid Devon District Council’s cabinet meeting at the end of this month. It will decide whether to ban the apostrophe from its street signs altogether ‘to avoid confusion’. However, it’s not the only local authority to pick on the apostrophe. Birmingham did the same three years ago (the Mail went with the headline ‘The city where apostrophes aren’t welcome’). It seems a slightly curious choice when the whole point of punctuation is to avoid confusion and add clarity.
And in Cambridge there’s more spring cleaning to do – the council now has the task of cleaning up the street signs where residents have written the apostrophes back in.
We use apostrophes for three reasons:
1. To show missing letters
E.g. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
2. To show possession
In the singular, the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’. In the plural it comes after the ‘s’.
E.g. The bank’s board must make a decision (the board of just one bank).
The banks’ board must make a decision (the board of more than one bank).
In names that end in ‘s’, you can either add an ‘s or just ‘ after the name.
E.g. St James’s Park and St James’ Park are both correct – it’s a style choice.
3. In expressions of time
E.g. We’ve been given one week’s notice (singular)
We’ve been given two weeks’ notice (plural).