Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss (2003): Possessive about apostrophes
Truss treats her beloved punctuation in an informative and humorous way
Lynne Truss: Punctuation zealot. Photograph: Dustin Shum/South China Morning Post via Getty
The Apostrophe Protection Society does exist. You don’t have to take my word for it. Its doings are given some attention in Lynne Truss’s surprise 2003 bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. “Surprise” because who would have thought a book on punctuation would have become such a commercial success?
You can tell Truss feels very strongly about punctuation because she initially declares: “Everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference.” She waxes more passionately about the apostrophe than about any other punctuation mark, believing it “has always done its proper jobs in our language with enthusiasm and elegance, but it has never been taken seriously enough; its talent for adaptability has been cruelly taken for granted.”
Hang on, now. We are talking about a punctuation mark, aren’t we? Punctuation marks are very necessary to prevent misunderstanding and invaluable for clarifying meaning, but to ascribe feelings to them is going a bit far. Fortunately, Truss does not continue in that vein, instead treating details about her beloved apostrophe in an informative and – even better – humorous way.
“Apostrophe” comes from a Greek word meaning “turning away” and hence “elision” or “omission”. It seems it first came into use in English in the 16th century, its original use indicating that letters had been left out, as in Hamlet’s exasperated cry: “Fie on’t! O fie!”
It developed other uses, such as to indicate singular and plural possessive and an omission of figures in dates. Probably a not so well-known usage is to indicate time (“four weeks’ notice”) or quantity (“two tons’ worth”).
Truss has some amusing examples of what she calls “dangling expectations caused by incorrect pluralisation”. For example, a sign on a flower shop, “Pansy’s ready” (what’s she ready for?); or a sign outside a supermarket, “Please replace the trolley’s” (replace the trolley’s what?).
Truss gets some good mileage as well from what she sees as the “unintentional sense” caused by the unmarked possessive. An example she gives is from a tray on an office desk with the sign: “Dicks in tray.” She advises us to try not to think about that one. Another example is from a notice in a golf club: “New members welcome drink.” The sentiment here is doubtless true but is still a bit of an assumption.
The runaway success of Truss’s book shows that the work of the Apostrophe Protection Society has not been in vain.