Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 21 June 2008

Dot Wordsworth ponders the apostrophe

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How funny to find the apostrophe described as a ‘notoriously difficult punctuation mark’ in last week’s Letters. It’s simple. So, the simple reason that St Thomas’s Hospital should be spelt with the final s is that it is pronounced by everybody as tom-ass-is, and the spelling must reflect that.

I agree that Earl’s Court is, as the Underground philosopher Anne Wotana Kaye suggests (Letters, 14 June), a deeper problem, for historical reasons. The station bears an apostrophe, whereas Barons Court does not. (Perhaps Dublin should build an Underground so that it could have a station called Finnegans Wake, like Joyce’s novel, but unlike the fully apostrophed name of the song.) Above ground the quaint settlement in London SW5 generally lacks the apostrophe. The exhibition centre says EARLS COURT in vast letters. The Earl’s Court Road has one, but not in the A–Z. There was in the 19th century an Earl’s Court Farm, after the original earl with his manor thereabouts. Harry Beck’s famous diagrammatic map of the Underground, from 1933, had Earls Court with no apostrophe. But it had no apostrophes in any station names. This was not Beck’s innovation, for the geographical map from 1932 lacked them too by policy. This policy had wobbled earlier. Gloucester Road was generally Gloster Road, sometimes with an apostrophe. The first official Underground map I have seen, from 1908, has Queen’s Road (now Queensway), Glo’ster Road, St James’ Park, Shepherd’s Bush, Golder’s Green, St Mary’s (west of Whitechapel), St John’s Wood Rd, but Regents Park, Kings Cross, Barons Court and Earls Court.

Suddenly in 1951 it became Earl’s Court (but still Barons Court) on the Underground map (with a change to St James’s Park and King’s Cross), and that is the way it has stayed. The station at Barons Court was opened in 1905 and still has Barons Court and District Railway on the ceramic front in original lettering. The station gave the name to the area.

The Oxford English Dictionary has firm words on the apostrophe, noting that the word itself ‘ought to be of three syllables in English as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with apostrophe [the figure of speech]’. As an indicator of the possessive, ‘it originally marked merely the omission of e in writing, as in fox’s, James’s, and was equally common in the nominative plural, especially of proper names and foreign words (as folio’s for folioes)’. No longer.

Certainly more difficult to use than the apostrophe are the full stop, the hyphen and the comma.

Dot Wordsworth