The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is the apostrophe possessive?

Q: A question that has been on my mind for a long time deals with the use of the apostrophe in a possessive like “John’s house.” How and when did this usage come into use?

A: When the apostrophe mark was introduced into English in the 1500s, it was originally used to show where a letter or syllable had been omitted. 

We still use it this way in contractions, but in fact it’s also how the apostrophe came to be a mark of possession.   

In Old English, long before the apostrophe came into use, the possessive ending for most nouns was es.

A house belonging to John, for example, would have been called something like “Johnes house.” (Another way to show possession was by using the word “of,” as in “the house of John.”) 

After the apostrophe came along, a possessive word like “Johnes” was written as “John’s” to show that a letter had been dropped—the e in es.

But the story is not as simple as that.

In Middle English (around 1100-1500) and later, the possessive ending es was often misheard as the possessive pronoun “his.”

This accounts for such erroneous old constructions as “John his house” (meaning “Johnes house”).

Historians have suggested that printers used the apostrophe (“John’s”) as a shortened form of either possessive, the legitimate “Johnes” or the illegitimate “John his.”

In “Axing the Apostrophe,” a 1989 article in English Today, the language writer Adrian Room has called the word for this punctuation mark “a cumbersome name for an awkward object.”

Where does this clunky name come from?

The short answer, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us, is that we got it via Latin and French from the classical Greek phrase prosoidia apostrophos, literally “accent of turning away.”

But there’s usually a long answer when tracking down the origin of an English word.

In this case, “apostrophe” entered English in the 1500s with two meanings, one in punctuation and the other in rhetoric.

In rhetoric, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “apostrophe” is a “figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”

The earliest published use of this sense in the OED comes from Sir Thomas More’s Apology (1533): “With a fygure of apostrophe and turning his tale to God criyng out: O good Lorde.”

The first citation for the word used to mean the punctuation mark is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588): “You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.”

(The word is spelled “apostraphas” or “apostrophus” in various editions of the play. The latter spelling persisted into the 18th century,  echoing the late Latin apostrophus.)

And that’s the story of how John’s house got its apostrophe.

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