apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case
[I]t appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.
The Oxford English Dictionary treats the two meanings of apostrophe, given above, as two separate words. Both are Greek in origin. The first, rhetorical, usage comes from Greek apostrophe, “turning away”.
Here’s Macbeth, for instance, “turning away” from his soliloquy to directly address a dagger of the mind:
Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1
Macbeth: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
The second, more familiar use, as the name of a punctuation mark, comes from a Greek punctuation mark with a similar function, the apostrophos prosoidia (“turning-away accent”). This was a little curve, line or point inserted into written Greek poetry, to indicate places where a syllable needed to be omitted to maintain the prosody. That idea was transferred to Latin as apostrophus, and then to French as apostrophe. It was the sixteenth-century engraver and typesetter Geoffroy Tory who first used a raised comma as an apostrophe in French, after which the practice spread into English typesetting.
For much of its life, the word for the punctuation mark was pronounced in the French manner, with three syllables and the emphasis on the first syllable:ˈapɒstrɔf. It was only in the nineteenth century that people began to pronounce it in the same way as the rhetorical device, shifting the emphasis to the second syllable and pronouncing the terminal vowel: əˈpɒstrəfiː. This seems unexceptional now, but when James Murray was editing the OED in the 1880s he inserted a small rant into the entry for apostrophe² (the punctuation mark), which immediately follows apostrophe¹ (the rhetorical device):
It ought to be of three syllables in Eng. as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with the prec. word.
That note is still present in my late-twentieth-century electronic version of the OED.
So the apostrophe started out as a sixteenth-century mark of elision, standing in for the missing “v” on o’er or the “i” in ’tis, work it still does today in words like couldn’t.
By the seventeenth century, it was also being used, sporadically, in its other major role, that of marking possession—as in “the man’s head” or “the ship’s anchor”. This seems to have been because the apostrophe was originally being used to mark a missing letter “e”, present in singular possessive-case endings in Old and Middle English—for instance mannes (“man’s”) and scipes (“ship’s”).
During the next two hundred years, the apostrophe began to spread to indicate possessives generally, but it took until the nineteenth century for its use to be codified as it is today—singular nouns and plurals without a final “s” take “’s”; plural nouns ending in “s” add a final apostrophe. Possessive pronouns don’t take an apostrophe: hers, theirs, yours, ours and its. The final one seems to be the only source of regular confusion, probably because “it’s” is also prevalent, but the apostrophe there marks an elision—“it is”.
And (as ever) there are a few refinements. Many style books suggest that classical proper names ending in “s” should take only a final apostrophe in the possessive (“Xerxes’ ships”, “Hercules’ labours”) but modern names need the conventional “apostrophe s” (“Bridget Jones’s diary”, “Keats’s poetry”).
For place names, it’s a matter of choice for the community involved: St. John’s, Newfoundland, but St Andrews, Scotland.* Likewise for the names of organizations, which have been showing a continuing tendency to drop their apostrophes—in part to make themselves more internet-compatible.
The apostrophe was once commonly used in some plurals. When I was growing up, we were taught to write “the 1960’s” and “V.I.P.’s only”, but it’s now more common to see “the 1960s” and “VIPs only” (full stops within initialisms having also been generally abandoned). The last hold-out for the plural “apostrophe s” is when pluralizing letters of the alphabet: “Mind your p’s and q’s” still looks better than “Mind your ps and qs.”
Finally, there’s the apostrophe in Irish surnames like O’Connor and O’Reilly. Unusually, it marks the elision of a space, in converting an original Gaelic patronymic to an Anglicized surname—in the examples above, from Ó Conchobhair meaning “descendant of Conchobar” and Ó Raghallaigh meaning “descendant of Raghallach”. Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic also used the patronymic Mac, “son”, which produces familiar Scottish surnames like MacDonald and MacAlpine. The original “Mac” prefix suffered a number of contractions, including “Mc” and “Mc”, which are still with us today, but also one that has fallen by the wayside. Uniquely, it involved the turned apostrophe—an inverted version of the usual. Right up to the nineteenth century, it was common to see names like M‘Donald and M‘Alpine, pronounced in exactly the same way as the unabbreviated versions. Presumably the turned apostrophe was used because it bore a resemblance to a superscript “c”, and therefore hinted at what it had replaced.
That’s all for now. In my next post on this topic, I’ll write a little about other -strophe words.
* Notice that the full stop after the contraction “St” is a matter of national typographic convention, however. It’s used after contractions and abbreviations in North America, but only after abbreviations here in the UK. So when we abbreviate “Professor” by dropping the ending, we write “Prof.”, but when we contract “Doctor” by removing the middle letters, we write “Dr”.