Q. Pheevr (q_pheevr) wrote,
Q. Pheevr

Wild accusing apostrophes

"Instead of bursting out into wild accusing apostrophes to God and destiny, he is resolving, as he now walks homewards under the solemn starlight, to repress his sadness, to be less bent on having his own will, and to live more for others, as Dinah does."

—George Eliot, Adam Bede

Most of the people who want to tell you how to use an apostrophe seem to be very angry, and perhaps that is why they do not do a particularly good job of it. They are generally so busy fulminating against the stupidity of those who misuse the apostrophe that they leave themselves no time for anything more than the briefest explanation of the rules whose flouting they lament. I'm really not sure who they think their audience is; anyone who is at all likely to sympathize with their frustration is surely ready for more advanced lessons in apostrophizing, while anyone who might benefit from the remedial courses they offer is likely to be somewhat put off by being called an idiot.


Of the fulminators, Bob the Angry Flower has perhaps the best excuse for being less than exhaustive on the subject: he's a cartoon, and his medium has its limits. He's also got the best excuse for fulminating; after all, Angry is his middle name. Still, the advice he offers, though accurate as far as it goes, is only cursory, and is expressed in examples rather than in rules: The cat's out of the bag is "correct"; The cat's feet are out of the bag is "also correct"; but All of the cat's are out of the bag is "No! Wrong! Totally wrong! Where'd you learn this? Stop doing it!" The only rules Bob explicitly states are "popular but incorrect" ones (such as "Add an apostrophe whenever you want"), which he cites in order to mock.

The Grouchy Grammarian

The Grouchy Grammarian, who dictates curmudgeonly advice to Thomas Parrish in a book of the same name, is also clearly a professional sourpuss. The fourteenth chapter of Parrish's slim book is called "Apostrophe Atrocities," and, as you might surmise, it is devoted primarily to recounting the horrors Parrish and his friend have witnessed (such as "music of Brahm's maturity" and "a rustic boy's school"), and only secondarily to offering constructive advice ("Never split a word apart to insert your apostrophe"). Possessive pronouns get their own (three-page) chapter, which contains the truly remarkable assertion that "Its' is not a word at all (and if it were one, it wouldn't have any meaning)." Parrish's confidence knows no bounds, not even the bounds of reality; what other style guide will tell you that a particular string of characters would be meaningless even if it were a word? The Grouchy Grammarian is clearly the book you will want to have with you if you ever decide to start writing in a parallel universe.

A panda, having eaten, prepares to shoot and leave.

Lynne Truss has earned derision from Louis Menand and from the usual suspects at Language Log for her militancy and for sloppiness, but I'd have to say that her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (which is named after the punch line to my sister's favourite joke), is one of the better specimens. For one thing, she cares enough to offer a bit of historical background on each of the punctuation marks she discusses, and she is also considerably more thorough than Parrish or Bob in enumerating the correct uses of the apostrophe. Furthermore, she's willing to deflate her own balloon from time to time: "Sticklers unite! You have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion—and arguably you didn't have much of that to begin with." Like Parrish, she eagerly displays her trophy case full of solecisms captured in the wild, but her tone is generally one of amusement, rather than the bitter exultation of a vindicated doomsayer. This is Parrish:

I myself jotted down the most quietly spectacular example of this point I've ever seen, having pulled off the highway to make the note. A convenience store in a small town bore this sign: ALWAY'S OPEN.

And this is Truss:

Singular possessive instead of plural possessive: [...] Nude Reader's Wives (intending "Readers' Nude Wives", of course, but conjuring up an interesting picture of polygamous nude reader attended by middle-aged women in housecoats and fluffy slippers)

Now, whom would you rather spend your time with?

I have to admit, though, that part of my animus against Parrish is attributable to his offhand perpetuation of the slanderous and simple-minded notion that descriptive linguistics is some sort of degenerate newfangled fad, probably bound up with postmodernism, moral relativism, and political correctness:

[The Grouchy Grammarian] readily conceded that prescribing in matters of grammar and usage has long been out of style in the world of linguistics, but "if you merely want description, just walk down the street, take a ride on the subway, go to the opera—you'll hear all kinds of people saying all kinds of things. That's not worth my time or yours, Parrish."

Very well, Parrish—we linguists will continue to fritter away our time discovering empirical facts about languages and what makes them tick (including some endangered languages spoken in parts of the world far away from the opera and the subway); meanwhile, you and your grouchy friend can go about the vastly more important business of haranguing people about punctuation marks.

In reality, though, there is no conflict whatsoever between practising descriptive linguistics and caring about following the prescriptive rules for spelling, punctuation, and usage. Mastering the latter provides one with a tremendously useful tool for effective and expressive communication; a descriptive linguist can acknowledge this while at the same time knowing that the tool is a wholly artificial one. Language is a natural and automatic part of being human; writing, and especially writing in conformity with an elaborate system of explicit and externally imposed rules, is a skill that must be learned. A descriptive linguist who places apostrophes with care is no more of an anomaly than a physiologist who studies human locomotion and drives to work.

Neither Parrish nor Bob seems to appreciate just how complicated the rules really are. Just for fun, let's consider just the range of environments in which one may correctly write an apostrophe immediately to the left of the letter s, setting aside various other uses of the apostrophe:

  1. In forming the possessive of a singular noun:
    the cat's feet, the bass's fins, the parenthesis's placement
  2. In forming the possessive of an irregular plural noun, but only if it doesn't happen to end in an s:
    the children's shoes and the seraphim's wings, but not *the parentheses's arrangement
  3. In forming the possessive of a singular noun phrase that happens to end in a plural suffix that is attached to something other than head noun:
    the woman with seven cats's house
    (If you leave out the s after the apostrophe, you transfer ownership of the house to the cats!)
  4. In forming the possessive of the impersonal pronoun one, or of quantified pronouns such as anyone, nobody, everyone, etc., but not in forming the possessive of any of the personal pronouns, except of course for the reciprocal anaphors each other and one another:
    One should watch one's language around Tom.
    Somebody's goddamn cell phone went off.
    They scratched each other's backs.
  5. In writing a contracted form of is:
    It's raining; the cat's upset.
  6. In writing a contracted form of has:
    It's stopped raining; the cat's gone out.
  7. In writing a contracted form of us, which only ever happens in the first person plural imperative let's, which nobody ever writes out as let us anymore
  8. In pluralizing letters (and maybe also figures or even words, depending on how your style manual feels about the matter), so as to avoid confusion:
    There are three lowercase a's in this sentence.
    (You don't really want that to look like as, do you?)
  9. In writing the third person present tense form of a letter that you have decided to use as a verb, again to avoid confusion:
    The professor A's the papers with a big red pen.
  10. In writing proper names that begin with the prefix O' followed by a name beginning with S:

That's quite a few, and I won't be entirely surprised if someone tells me I've left something out. This barely begins to cover the complexity of the apostrophe in general, though—for example, you use it to indicate omitted letters, so if you leave out the g at the end of the word fishing to indicate that you mean it to be pronounced with an alveolar nasal at the end instead of a velar one, you put an apostrophe in its place and write fishin', but if you then add a possessive, you don't thereby get to write two apostrophes in a row: you have to write fishin's joys are many, not *fishin''s joys are many, because there's some kind of unwritten degemination rule that prevents apostrophes from pilin' up and turnin' into quotation marks. But nobody who writes books about apostrophes and their ilk is likely to tell you this, because they're all too busy laughing at the people whose stores are "ALWAY'S OPEN."

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