Archive | August 2014

Apostrophes & Passive Errors

It’s not often that I would dare accuse Oxford Dictionaries of getting it wrong but I’m going to stick my neck out in a pedantic dispute over apostrophes.

The OED – and its online edition – is normally one of my Bibles. It’s where I go when in doubt about a spelling or the correct usage of a word.

But I think they’ve got it wrong this time.

I work part-time as a sub-editor for a newspaper and the other day – in a moment of boredom – I had a go at an ‘Apostrophe Challenge‘ on their website. Hoping, of course, to get 10 out of 10!

But I was flummoxed by one question where all of the possible answers included an apostrophe and, according to the answer given, we should refer to “a 1940s’ building”.

Huh?! If we were talking about a building belonging to the 1940s then I would follow the logic but surely in this sense we’re using 1940s as an adjective. Therefore, no apostrophe should be used.

If you wrote out the numbers would you use an apostrophe? E.g. “a nineteen forties’ building”. Or if talking about “sixties’ heartthrob Adam Faith”. I think not.

The logic of using an apostrophe also falls down if you think about other historical eras. If we were describing a building as “Victorian” or “colonial” we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. The words here would be adjectives so why take a different approach to the 1940s?

I’d be interested to know what others think. I asked around in my office and the unanimous reaction was there should be no apostrophe. My news editor said it’s the kind of mistake we’re always trying to get junior reporters to stop making in their copy!

I must hold my hand up to one of my own errors though. The first reviewer on Amazon.com for my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits told me off for the ‘affectation’ of using the passive form “is/was sat” when I should use the active “sits/is sitting”.

Guilty as charged! I’m not sure it’s an affectation, though, more of an unconscious error. I think I use this form quite often unintentionally. I don’t actually mean to infer that a third person has “sat” the person involved on a chair – which grammatically is what I’m implying, it’s just the way I speak/write.

I get thrown sometimes by American using the form “gotten”, which no longer exists in British English. Anyone else got any grammatical quirks to share?