Sunday, April 6, 2014

Random thoughts on the early use of apostrophes

Apostrophes in plurals of nouns ending in s.

While looking in Google Books for early use of the spelling fetus (as opposed to foetus) in British books, I came across this, from the Transactions of the Royal Society, London, with its double use of apostrophes in plurals ending in s - species's and fetus's:

Philosophical Transactions (of the Royal Society), 1669

I had known that one of the early uses of the apostrophe was in plurals of certain words ending in vowels (see next section), but this one was new to me.


Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage cite Joseph Addison as using the apostrophe in Genius's in the Spectator of 1711, but say that 'it is far from certain what Addison meant by his apostrophe.'

The Spectator No.100, 1711

One thing is clear though, that he is using it as a standard plural. In the third volume of The Works of Joseph Addison, published in 1721, there are at least ten instances of genius's spelt like this:
Among great Genius's, those few draw the admiration of all the world upon them
Our countryman Shakespear was a remarkable instance of this first kind of great Genius's
There is another kind of Genius's, which I shall p;ace in a second class
This second class of Genius's are those that have formed themselves by rules
The great danger in these latter kind of Genius's is ...
It is odd to consider what great Genius's are sometimes thrown away upon trifles
as it turned many of the greatest genius's of that age to the disquisitions of natural knowledge
so different are the Genius's which are formed under Turkish slavery, and Grecian liberty
There is another rule likewise ... which these modern Genius's have no regard to
I have heard onr of the greatest Genius's this Age has produced

The Works of Joseph Addison, Vol , London 1721 GB

I think we can assume the apostrophe was probably replacing a missing e. There are certainly a few examples of geniuses from before this time

The Force of the Argument for the Truth of Christianity, John Rotheram, Oxford 1653

Entertainments of the Cours, Melchior de Marmet, London 1658

Observations on Monsieur de Sorbier's voyage into England, Thomas Sprat, London, 1665

And a case of belt and braces?

I'm not quite sure what the apostrophe is replacing here:

A Discourse Concerning the Origine and Properties of Wind, Ralph Bohun, Oxford 1671

A few more for species's, and a couple of genus's.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, London 1676 (reprint)

A View of the English Constitution, William Higden, London 1709

Dictionaire Oeconomique, Noel Chomel, Richard Bradley, London 1725

The History of the Works of the Learned, London 1742

The Loves of Cupid and Psyche, Jean de La Fontaine, London 1744

Two treatises of the quadrature of curves ..., Sir Isaac Newton, London 1745

Philosophical Transactions, London 1749

Apostrophes in plurals of words ending in vowels

In his entry for comma, Samuel Johnson includes this quote from Alexander Pope - Comma's and Points they set exactly right. Here it is in context:

An Epistle from Mr. Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot, London 1735

This use of the apostrophe in plurals of nouns ending in a vowel was used quite a lot for words of foreign origin, and was not unknown in the works of Shekaespeare.

Shakespeare - The First Folio

Come wee to full Points here, and are et cetera's nothing?

Henry IV Part 2, 2:4

And I may say to you, wee knew where the Bona-Roba's were

Henry IV Part 2, 3:2

They bid vs to the English Dancing-Schooles,
And teach Lavolta's high, and swift Carranto's,

Henry V, 3:5


  • Bona-roba - literally 'good stuff', here apparently 'A showy wanton; a courtesan'.
  • The Lavolta (La volta) and carranto were dances.

Banana's and potato's etc

This use of the apostrophe was particularly popular when talking of foreign fruit and vegetables, etc. This is possibly the origin of today's totally harmless Greengrocer's apostrophe that some people get so worked up about.

Some Considerations ..., Robert Boyle, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, Oxford 1664

Thesaurus Geographicus, London 1695

A Voyage to the East-Indies, Gabriel Dellon and others, London 1698

A New Voyage Round the World, William Dampier, London 1703

Asia in One Volume, London 1712

Historico-Political Geography, Paschoud (schoolmaster) London 1729

Arithmetick, in the plainest and most concise methods hitherto extant, George Fisher, London 1734

The Gardeners Kalendar, Philip Miller, London 1737

A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and West-Indies, John Atkins, London 1737

Memoirs of the Royal Society, London 1740

The Universal Pocket-book, London 1742

Memoirs of the Royal Society, London 1745

Modern History Or the Present State of All Nations, Thomas Salmon, London 1746

The Works of Mr. Francis Beaumont and Mr. John Fletcher, London 1750

Of virago's, opera's, virtuoso's and idea's

And it wasn't only used for foodstuffs:

Helen and Menelaus, trans. John Dryden, London 1716

The Danger of Masquerades and Raree-shows, London 1718

Philosophical Experiments and Observations, Robert Hooke, london 1726

De Statu Mortuorum & Resurgentium Tractatus, Thomas Burnet and others, London 1728

Robert Baker

Eighteenth century grammarian, Robert Baker was perhaps the first to complain about this usage:

Remarks on the English Language, Robert Baker, London 1770

Joseph Addison and apostrophes in past participles

In the example from Alexander Pope we can see the final e in past participles being replaced by an apostrophe - smil'd and kiss'd. Although this was mainly used in poetry, it was apparently slipping in to prose as well, which Addison complained about in 1711:

The Spectator, No 135

Which didn't apparently stop him using it himself:

The Drummer: Or, The Haunted-House, 1751

The Gothick Governments in Europe, tho' they were of Military Institution, yet observ'd almost the same Method

The Examiner, Joseph Addison, London 1710 GB

Cato, Joseph Addison, London 1779

Poems on Several Occasions, Joseph Addison, Glasgow 1750

Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, Joseph Addison, London 1718

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