Recently I did a paid proofreading job. My client was writing on an education topic and her biggest problem was with apostrophes. Their use was almost random, but my favourite was the word
student’s’ , where the two apostrophes created a safeguard of sorts.
Actually, after doing that piece of work I was pondering apostrophes in general, and thinking that written English would be a whole lot better without them in most cases. Huge numbers of people can’t use them correctly, and most of the time what’s been written can be perfectly well understood whether they’re used correctly or incorrectly. Understand that here I’m talking about the possessive apostrophe.
Then I came across an absolutely wonderful article by Kory Stamper about the apostrophe. For one thing, the whole notion of
correctness turns out to be, shall we say, fluid …
I’d love to quote the entire thing here, but that’s not good form. I’ve restrained myself and quoted only a very few highlights below. I do urge you to go and read the whole article though.
The apostrophe first appeared in English sometime in the 16th century … when it first showed up in English print, it was used to signal that a letter (or several letters) had been omitted …
… sometime around the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, people began to use it to signal possession. …
As a possessive marker, the apostrophe is fairly straightforward unless the base word ends in “-s,” and then everything falls all to hell. Is it “Davy Jones’s locker,” or “Davy Jones’ locker?” Yes. Is it “Jesus’s wounds?” Good lord no, of course it is not, why would you even think that? It is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” Why? …
What this means for the modern apostrophizer, of course, is that instead of having one or two simple rules to govern apostrophe use, we now have a jam jar full of smudgy guidelines that don’t have any consistent historical application. … What do you do if you are referring to the house that belongs to the married couple with the last name “Jones”? You practically need a fold-out flow chart to figure out whether “the Joneses house” gets an apostrophe and where.
… None of us–not a single one of us–has gotten the apostrophe right in every circumstance because “right” is a moving target, and that’s the thing that we lose sight of …
Once upon a time in my youth I was
good at English. I became a teacher of German and English and was pretty snobby about others who couldn’t spell well or use apostrophes correctly. Sigh.
Then one day, after I’d left teaching, a friend pointed me towards the light.
Can you understand what the writer means? That’s what’s important.
One problem with possessive apostrophes these days is that they cause confusion, both in writers and in readers. They often get in the way of communication, rather than helping it.
Thank goodness for my friend though. These days I tut to myself in private about egregious misuses of the language by those who should know better, such as public speakers and broadcasters, while allowing enormous leeway to ‘regular’ folks who simply want to express themselves.
After all, that’s what language is for: to communicate, to transfer ideas between people. Writing came long after speaking and gesture. At best, writing is arbitrary anyway. Let’s dump that possessive apostrophe as being useless. After all, if it’s confusing who
possesses something in a sentence we could always use that beloved trick of writers and reword. [So, is it a writer’s trick, a writers’ trick or a writers trick?]