Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2014
The improper use of the possessive apostrophe has for a long time been a subject of concern among the authors of usage guides in English. Apostrophes do not represent any sounds, and since nouns in the genitive, and plural nominative and accusative nouns with few exceptions sound the same, their spelling distinctions are purely grammatical (Bryant et al., 1997: 93). Because the sign exists only in the written language, its usage has been rather unstable ever since it was first introduced to the English language in the sixteenth century to mark dropped letters (Little, 1986: 15−16), and it was not until the eighteenth century when the possessive apostrophe was first introduced (Crystal, 2003: 68). The usage guide database HUGE (Hyper Usage Guide of English), which is built by Robin Straaijer as part of the ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable’ project that Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade wrote about in an earlier issue of English Today, proves that apostrophe ‘misuse’ is the most popular topic in the field of language advice when it comes to punctuation. The apostrophe holds its own among numerous disputed items, such as ending sentences with prepositions, using me for I, who for whom or splitting infinitives. The first historical reference to the apostrophe in the HUGE database appears in Reflections on Language Use by Robert Baker in 1770 and it continues to be discussed to the present day. The discussion of the mark's ‘misuse’ has been widely popularized by the publication of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation in 2003.