Are apostrophe's your Achille's heel?

Southwark Cathedral, seat of the bishop of Southwark, houses a memorial to two young surgeons who died tending to the British sick and wounded in the Crimea. The tablet was erected, it says, by ‘the Governors of St Thomas’s Hospital”.

St Thomas’s. Now there’s a thing. Anybody who has anything to do with writings about the health service gets quickly drummed into them an awareness that the place has to be referred to as St Thomas’ Hospital, because that’s the way it presents itself. Never mind the fact that even the people who work there, like everyone else, actually talk about St Thomas’s.

In other words, the guideline must be to follow what such an institution lays down. But appreciate that there is another guideline lurking – represent in print what people say.

When Canaletto touted his painting of London’s Old Horse Guards building – in the Daily Advertiser of 25 July 1749 – he described it as being a view of St James’ Park. Going even further, Harry Beck stripped all the apostrophes out of his iconically diagrammatic map of the London Underground when he first developed it in the early 1930s, to give St James Park.

But people actually say St James’s Park. And that is where the Royal Parks website, the road signs and the present London Underground map have ended up.

This other guideline means taking note of how people talk. I say Euripides’s play, as, I imagine, does Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, since that is what she had printed in an article about the value of learning Greek and Latin. I refer to Charles Dickens’s novels, as does Iain Sinclair’s huge collection of fugitive scraps presented in London: City of Disappearances.

But I’m fairly sure that this extra ‘s’is not always present, because I also talk about Sir John Stevens’ inquiry into Princess Diana’s death and Noel Edmonds’ popular Deal Or No Deal.

So there you have it: St Thomas’ Hospital because the powers that be declare it. But St James’s Park, Euripides’s, Dickens’s, Stevens’ and Edmonds’ because that’s the way people say it. Unless, of course, someone with real clout comes along to force a style guide change.

Humphrey Evans is a member of the NUJ London freelance branch

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