26 September 2008

An Apostrophe to the Apostrophe

Oz and Ends can't go through PUNCTUATION WEEK without addressing the punctuation mark that, despite its small size, causes today's writers and readers more headaches than any other. It lacks the solidity of the period and other sentence-ending marks, and style guides differ in some small respects on how to use it. Nonetheless, there are some clear rules about how not to use it, which many people obviously don't recall. I refer, of course, to the-- Oops.

(A natural confusion. Let's resume.)

--to the apostrophe.

O apostrophe, you have only two basic uses in English. You indicate where letters/sounds have been dropped from how we pronounce a word, as in the contraction "can't." And as an outgrowth of that usage, you indicate a possessive; the Old English genitive case ended "—es," and dropping the vowel produced "—'s," which people decided was such a convenient signal for a possessive that it became standard. Why isn't that enough?

For some reason, many people insert apostrophes into plural words. Apparently, the more marks on a sign, the more plural the word is. Misused apostrophes are so common to have inspired three separate blogs using this service alone:

(Those blogs address punctuation marks other than the apostrophe as well.)

People also try to put an apostrophe into the possessive pronoun "its." That I can understand since almost every other possessive does end in "—'s," and we also see the contraction "it's" all the time. Thomas Jefferson preferred the possessive "it's" and used it consistently. Nonetheless, it's wrong; pronouns, like "his," have been sanded down so far that they lack all ornamentation.

To sum up this topic, I can't think of anyone more qualified than Bob the Angry Flower.
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Anonymous said...

There is an important ambiguity of apostrophes: is it "the princess' slipper" or "the princess's slipper?" I prefer the former. My copyeditor prefers the latter.

J. L. Bell said...

In the Associated Press style sheet and most newspapers, “the princess’ slipper” is correct.

In the Chicago Manual of Style and most books, “the princess’s slipper” is correct.

You might have been trained in daily journalism while your copyeditor is working in book style.

I prefer the latter because it better matches how we say the phrase. And I’ve had more experience in book publishing.

Newspapers probably prefer the former, just as they drop the serial comma, because that style saves ink and space.

Anonymous said...

Always good to see a modern writer using the vocative case. (What a pity this is not in Latin so that the case use would be more obvious.)

Nathan said...

I've been reading Sylvie and Bruno on and off recently (it's a little difficult to take in large doses, despite some very clever ideas), and I noticed that extra apostrophes were apparently in vogue back when Carroll wrote it. For instance, it's always "ca'n't" instead of "can't."

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, nineteenth-century writers and printers often used an apostrophe for every dropped letter, such as the first N in “can’t” or the Ls in “won’t.” And they’d often leave a space in the middle of those contractions: “should n’t.”

Looking at eighteenth-century letters, I see many people putting apostrophes in the past tense form: “desir’d.” And some recall that the L in “would” was voiced at one point, but no longer: “wou’d.”

I think that shows our conception of what is normal evolves. We’re so far away from the Elizabethan pronunciation of the past tense with an extra syllable that we no longer need the apostrophe to remind us that it’s not voiced.