Prescriptivist’s Corner: The Catastrophe of Apostrophes

One of the more troublesome punctuation marks is the simple apostrophe. Editors and writers simply cannot agree on its proper use. There is no disagreement over the major function of the mark, but like many things the devil is in the details. The application of the apostrophe is a grammatical catastrophe.

One would think it was simple enough. Over its history, the apostrophe has served three basic functions, one of which has been falling out of use in recent years. First, it substitutes for missing or silent letters. Second, it marks the possessive case. Finally, the practice that is dying out is the use to mark the plural of acronyms, numbers, or letters.

Sins of Omission
The apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16th century as a means of marking where a letter or letters were omitted. Today, this most commonly occurs in contractions, like it’s for it is and don’t for do not. But the apostrophe is also used in certain words that are traditionally spelled with their silent letters omitted to better represent pronunciation. These include fo’c’s’le (forecastle), bo’s’n (boatswain), ne’er-do-well (never-do-well), rock ‘n’ roll (rock and roll), and o’er (over). And the apostrophe can also be used in place of the letter e in the adjectival suffix –ed when the root word ends in a fully pronounced vowel. Thus you have shampoo’d hair instead of shampooed hair, subpoena’d witness instead of subpoenaed witness, and shanghai’d sailor instead of shanghaied sailor. Not all writers and editors follow this last practice (and evidently from the red squiggles that are appearing on my computer screen, Microsoft’s spell checker doesn’t like it much either), but use of the apostrophe in such instances cannot be considered incorrect, just in violation of house style.

The apostrophe can also be used to substitute for omitted numerals. This is most commonly done in dates: the ‘60s.

The second major use of the apostrophe is in forming the possessive (genitive) case.

The singular possessive of nouns and the possessive of plurals that do not end in s are formed with ‘s (e.g., Vinnie’s loan and men’s wagers). The possessive of plurals that end in s are formed with just an apostrophe (e.g., the brass knuckles’ shiny surface).

This rule for possessives is almost invariable. Singular nouns and names that end in the letter s take ‘s to form the possessive. Thus, it is Charles’s, not Charles’. There are three exceptions. The first is a handful of classical names that end in s. These take just the apostrophe to form the possessive. Thus it is Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, and Jesus’ parables.

The second exception is in proper names of places and institutions. In some cases, the apostrophe is dropped and the possessive is formed with just an s. There is no rule to determine when to drop the apostrophe; you just have to rely on tradition or the institution’s preference. Thus Vinnie might be locked up on Riker’s Island, but his hometown is Toms River, New Jersey. He might knock over Barclays Bank, but he would torch Woolworth’s Department Store for the insurance money. The trend in recent years has been for businesses to drop the apostrophe in their names.

The third exception is in the phrase for goodness’ sake(s). Traditionally, this term only takes the apostrophe, not the ‘s. Some authorities also claim that it should be for conscience’ sake and for appearance’ sake as well, but this is not followed by the majority of American writers. Most writers and editors prefer for conscience’s sake and for appearance’s sake.

The possessive of pronouns is a bit different than it is for nouns. Personal pronouns do not take an apostrophe in the possessive: his, hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours. Impersonal and indefinite pronouns, however, do take the apostrophe: anybody’s guess, each other’s wagers, one’s debts, and somebody else’s money.

Remember, the most common error regarding the apostrophe is confusion between it’s and its. It’s is the contraction for it is and its is the possessive pronoun. Even the best writers make this error, often the result of carelessness, rather than ignorance.

While the rule on possessives is simple and (almost) universal, in actual application it can be a bit complex at times.

Possessive of Compound Nouns
Compound nouns only take the ‘s at the end of the final element: Duke of Edinburgh’s gaffe, Genco Olive Oil’s customers.

Possessive of Joint Nouns
The phrase Vinnie and Sonny’s buttonmen indicates that Vinnie and Sonny are partners and jointly employ a group of buttonmen. Vinnie’s and Sonny’s buttonmen indicates that there are two groups of buttonmen, each individual employing one of the groups.

Double Possessive
Then there is the question of the double possessive. I probably shouldn’t go off on a rant here, but it never ceases to amaze me when linguists and lexicographers abuse the language to the point that they utterly fail to communicate. Of all people, they should know better. Here is what Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED2, has to say about the double possessive: “The currency of the type a friend of my father’s is not in question. It is called the post-genitive in CGEL; Jesperson says that of-phrases thus used should not be called partitive but ‘appositional’; the OED describes the construction as ‘of followed by a possessive case or absolute possessive pronoun: originally partitive but subseq. used instead of the simple possessive (of the possessor or author) where this would be awkward or ambiguous, or as equivalent to the appositive phrase’.” I don’t know about you, but it took me about three hours to figure out what Burchfield means. What is the point of writing a grammar manual if no one can understand what you say?

What Burchfield is trying to say is that constructions like a friend of my father’s or a buttonman of Vinnie’s are a common English idiom. On the face of it, the addition of the ‘s is redundant and unnecessary, but it has been done this way since we were speaking Middle English. There is nothing wrong with the double possessive. Now, why didn’t he just say that?

Adjectival Names
A common error is to use the possessive when a proper name is used as an adjective. It should be Vinnie altered the spread for the Giants game, not Vinnie altered the spread for the Giants’ game.

Possessive of Possessive Names
Many businesses, like McDonald’s or Woolworth’s, use the possessive form as their name. How does one use these in the possessive? Technically, I guess one could write McDonald’s’s quarterpounders or Woolworth’s’s toys, but the only good way is to create the possessive with a prepositional phrase, as in the quarterpounders at McDonald’s or the toys at Woolworth’s.

Inanimate Objects
Some authorities argue that inanimate objects cannot possess other things, therefore one should not use the ‘s with things. They say it should be the shiny surface of the brass knuckles, not the brass knuckle’s shiny surface. This is a silly argument. One does not avoid the ownership question by using of instead of ‘s. And the possessive case is not really about ownership. If it were, Karl Marx wouldn’t have written, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” After all, it’s the capitalists and not the workers that own everything. He would have written, “…nothing to lose but the chains that bind you.” Rather, the possessive is really about identification and reference, about winnowing the universe of shiny surfaces down to the one shiny surface associated with a particular pair of brass knuckles. There is nothing wrong with using ‘s with inanimate objects.

Forming Plurals
In years past, the apostrophe was commonly used to form plurals of abbreviations and numerals. Hence we had the 1980’s, CPA’s, and mind your p’s and q’s. In recent years, however, this practice has been sharply reduced in occurrence. Today you are much more likely to see 1980s and CPAs. In most cases there is no confusion and it is better to simply follow the standard practice of adding just an s to form the plural. Forming the plural of individual letters, however, is tricky. But capitalizing the letter and adding s usually works, as in mind your Ps and Qs.

It is a good practice to keep the rules pure. Don’t use ‘s to form plurals.

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