The recent news stories about the Bristol Grammar Vigilante must have cheered a lot of us up. His night time raids on signs outside shops and offices which have unnecessary apostrophes, or no apostrophes where there ought to be apostrophes, have given many of us great pleasure (let us hope the humourless police who are determined to catch him and prosecute him never succeed).
But the stories have resurrected the old debate about whether it is permissible to put an apostrophe at the end of a singular word which ends with S without adding another S. Golly, how strongly some of us feel about that. I will declare myself immediately. I abhor, I hate, the modern practice of doing without the extra S. It seems to me to be wholly illogical. The plural gives no problems. “The Utleys’ pen” means a pen belonging to several people called Utley. “Tom Utley’s pen” means a pen belonging to my brother, Tom. But what does “Charles’ pen” mean? Logic would suggest it means a pen belonging to several people called Charle. But, in fact, it is often intended to mean a pen belonging to Charles.
Whenever we have this fascinating debate St Thomas’s Hospital comes up. That excellent institution persists, entirely erroneously, in calling itself St Thomas’ Hospital. And I am told that its administrators feel just as strongly about their determination to use a quite improper form as I do in opposing them.
I was delighted to see an article by the splendid Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph in which he roundly attacked the famous hospital for failing to add the extra S. But, inevitably, readers (or one reader) disagreed with him. She wrote a letter to the ‘paper saying she had been taught English very well (implying that modern children aren’t). Her brilliant English teacher had told her (I wonder whether her memory was fading – I hope that is the explanation), that singular words ending in S should always be treated, when it came to apostrophes, as though they were plurals. Mr Howse was quite wrong: the modern practice, which she actually suggested was the old practice, was to be preferred.
I remember raising the great question of whether it is St Thomas’s or St Thomas’ with an eminent consultant at the hospital. He was desperately keen to support the management. He came up with a fascinating theory. The hospital was named, he said, after two Saints Thomas, therefore it was plural and the extra S should not be used. Actually, as a glance at the hospital’s charter confirms, he was wrong about the number of Thomases. But, even if he had been right, his frightfully loyal argument was hopeless. If there were two saints the hospital should have been called St Thomases’.
It is, of course, silly of me to raise this important subject. I will be inundated with comments from people saying English is a developing language and, if those who use it are inclined to be illogical about apostrophes, that is absolutely fine.
But I will go on being frightfully cross about St Thomas’s Hospital calling itself St Thomas’ Hospital.