1.12.2010

Those Annoying Apostrophes

Apostrophes tend to be a major source of irritation and confusion to those (even native English speakers) who write in English. Indeed, a journey across the internet will show just how often "it's" and "its" are mixed up, as are "theirs" and "their's." The writing site Howtowriteessay.co.uk states:
The apostrophe was not widely used until the 17th century, and the rules were not laid down until the 19th century, which perhaps explains its famous abuse from market traders who always seem to sell orange's.
Generally speaking, the apostrophe is used to stand in for missing letters, such as "it's" for "it is" or to show possession (such as "boy's," "mother's"...). Confusingly, possessive pronouns do not take apostrophes, which mean that "his," hers," and "its" are correct even if "Joes," "Sarahs," and "cats" are not when used in a possessive context.

Another source of confusion is how to use the apostrophe for possessives. Generally speaking, for singular nouns, " 's " is added to the noun, while plural nouns ending in "s" simply take an apostrophe after the "s" ("the one boy's" vs. "the two boys' "). What about singular nouns and names ending in "s," such as "Dickens"?

The site states the following:
This rule applies in most cases even with a name ending in s:
Thomas's job
the bus's arrival
James's fiancée
Steve Davis's victory
However, under "exceptions," the same site states this rule:
Second, a name ending in s takes only an apostrophe if the possessive form is not pronounced with an extra s. Hence:
Socrates' philosophy
Saint Saens' music
Ulysses' companions
Aristophanes' plays
So it depends upon pronunciation? What if someone were to pronounce the extra "s" in, say "Ulysses'(s)"?

Dates appear to be tricky. The site, which is British, claims that decades, such as "1970s" are written without the apostrophe in British English but with the apostrophe (e.g. "1970's") in US English. Yet the New York Times, which presumably uses US English, has dropped the apostrophe from such contexts, considering it to be archaic. I've also heard other American sources that swear that apostrophes should not be used in this context.

The British site, however, states that:
a year is occasionally written in an abbreviated form with an apostrophe: Pío Baroja was a distinctive member of the generation of '98. This is only normal in certain set expressions; in my example, the phrase generation of '98 is an accepted label for a certain group of Spanish writers, and it would not be normal to write *generation of 1898.
This sounds reasonable, but it should probably be extended to include school and university alumni groups, since, as far as I know, such spellings as "Class of '89" are perfectly correct. For that matter, "Class of 1989" wouldn't be incorrect, either.

The site advises that apostrophes should almost never be used for forming plurals. More than one dog would be "dogs" and never "dog's." What about for letters of the alphabet that need to be pluralized? Guess what! The plural is formed with-an apostrophe:
An apostrophe is indispensable, however, in the rare case in which you need to pluralize a letter of the alphabet or some other unusual form which would become unrecognizable with a plural ending stuck on it:
Mind your p's and q's.
How many s's are there in Mississippi?
It is very bad style to spatter e.g.'s and i.e.'s through your writing.
The mess doesn't end there? What about holidays such as "Veterans Day" (a US holiday) or "Valentine's Day." For Veterans Day, at least, the debate even became controversial, as reported by the newspaper The Columbia Missourian. "Veterans Day" appears to be the far-from-clear choice because the holiday is a day for all Americans to honor veterans; hence, "Veterans" is used descriptively rather than possessively. When plural nouns are used descriptively, they generally do not take adjectives. Yet the confusion has arisen because if the holiday were a day belonging to veterans, it should be "Veterans' Day," or to "the veteran," it should be "Veterans' Day."

Valentine's Day appears to be a bit less confusing, as it is "St. Valentine's Day," but it could theoretically be interpreted as a day for everyone to celebrate their valentines (Valentines Day) or a day belonging to valentines (Valentines' Day).

To sum up, Howtowriteessay.co.uk has concluded that:
The apostrophe (') is the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful. No other punctuation mark causes so much bewilderment, or is so often misused. On the one hand, shops offer *pizza's, *video's, *greeting's cards and *ladie's clothing; on the other, they offer *childrens shoes and *artists supplies. The confusion about apostrophes is so great, in comparison with the small amount of useful work they perform, that many distinguished writers and linguists have argued that the best way of eliminating the confusion would be to get rid of this troublesome squiggle altogether and never use it at all.
Perhaps they're right!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

2 comments:

Mad Minerva said...

Have you seen this?

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/apostrophe

Terry said...

Thanks, Mad Minerva, for the comment and for reading! That's a very cool diagram recapping the appropriate uses of apostrophes. Note all the exceptions! The tip "When in doubt, don't use an apostrophe" made me laugh, but given all the confusion, I suspect that this would lead to a lot of omitted apostrophes! Cheers, Silas