The greengrocer’s apostrophe in Dutch

Reading Hoffman’s Honger (1990) by Leon de Winter, a Dutch writer (b. 1954) who divides his time between living in The Netherlands and Los Angeles, I was struck by the apostrophe in the title of this novel.

Dutch usage of the apostrophe in genitival constructions is different from English, and would have required Hoffmans Honger, and similarly Shakespeares as well as Lowths.

By contrast, the Dutch plural of baby (an English loanword), is not babies, as in English, but baby’s: always a tricky thing for those of us spending a great deal of time writing in English.

Is Hoffman’s Honger a typographical error, or do titles of books follow different rules, as with Howards End where we would expect an apostrophe but don’t find it?

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3 Responses to The greengrocer’s apostrophe in Dutch

  1. Cornelis van Eykelen says:

    Dutch writer W.F. Hermans was criticized for his title “Homme’s hoest” (“Homme’s cough”, 1980). Hermans defended himself valiantly, but was utterly wrong of course. Maybe “Hoffman’s honger” slyly refers to this episode.

  2. usageguides says:

    If you can read Dutch, you might like to read more on Cornelis van Eykelen’s comment here at: http://www.vanoostendorp.nl/linguist/taalnormen.html. You will also find more instances of this unusual Dutch use of the apostrophe in titles of books.

  3. Werner Neirinckx says:

    W.F. Hermans had a point. “Hommes hoest” is ambiguous. It can mean “Hommes coughs / is coughing”, in which case “hoest” is a verb. Or it can mean “Homme’s cough”, in which case “hoest” is a noun. “Homme’s hoest” is grammatically incorrect, but semantically unambiguous.

    The same reasoning does not apply to Leon de Winter’s “Hoffman’s honger”, because “honger” is always a noun, never a verb. De Winter’s hommage to W.F. Hermans?

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