Apostrophication

The thorny subject of apostrophes and their usage came up in the comments on a recent post. There seems to be considerable confusion about when to use the common or garden aspostrophe, which is might be thought of as a comma that’s got above itself.

In English the apostrophe is used to indicate possession, as in the boy’s toys, the girls’ hair and the cat’s pyjamas. It comes after the s if the noun is plural. When a noun ends in an s, the apostrophe can go after that s, or another s can be added, e.g. Mr Jones’ hat or Mr Jones’s hat. Apostrophes show that letters have been omitted, as in don’t, he’ll and they’ve, and can also be used when writing the plurals of individual letters, such as p’s and q’s.

Apostrophical uncertainity arises with the personal pronouns as they don’t follow the behaviour of ordinary nouns. Logically the possessives yours, its, hers, ours and theirs should have apostrophes, but the grammarians who devised the rules for the use of apostrophes, notably Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray, forgot to include them. It’s is a contraction of it is or it has, so the possessive has to be its.

The use of apostrophes to show plurals, as in potato’s and tomato’s is frowned on but understandable – these words are fairly unusual in that they end with vowels. If you’re not sure of the real plurals (potatoes and tomatoes), you might think that adding ‘s would avoid the misleading pronunciations like ‘pot-at-oss’ and ‘tom-at-oss’. Afterall, apostrophes are sometimes used to show the plurals like 1960′s.

One area of apostrophe usage that I’m not sure about is in expressions such as a weeks holiday, or should that be week’s? And a days/day’s wages. As these expressions show possession, I suppose apostrophes should be used, but it feels wrong to me – how can the abstract concept of a week or a day possess anything?

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This entry was posted in Language, Writing.

17 Responses to Apostrophication

  1. Logan says:

    ‘Cos idiomatic phrases don’t follow the rules. :)

    In Afrikaans, phrases like “vyf minute se werk” (five minute’s work) or “vandag se koerant” (today’s newspaper) make use of the possessive to state the idea. Likewise, these would be expressed as ‘n week se vakansie and ‘n dag se salaris for the above two examples. Of what I’ve studied, Slavic languages tend to use adjectives derived from adverbs (today : today’s :: dzisiaj : dzisiajszy) to express the same idea (dzisiajsza płaca / dzisiajszy zarobek, today’s pay/wages).

    I’m thinking I read that in American English, the construction Mr. Jones’ hat would always take the added -s. This is what I found year after year in my English textbooks, and the teachers all spent a decent amount of time drilling this into our heads, so I’m going to take a fair assumption in favor of all singular nouns ending with ‘s in the genitive (in, as mentioned, American English).

  2. Ben L. says:

    An intriguing if impractical topic. To address particular parts:

    1) Pronouns, possessive or otherwise, are in a class by themselves and tend to decline differently than other classes. So while most nouns simply take an “-s” or “-es” to become plural, pronouns might show a non-standard transformation (e.g. the vowel shift from “he” to “his” instead of the theoretical “he’s”) and sometimes preserve older stages of the language (e.g. the case marker in “With whom am I speaking?”//”With your neighbor.”). Therefore, we cannot expect standard pronoun usage (written or spoken) to conform logically with the language generally, as with “its” vs. “it’s”.

    2) There are some less common pronouns that I believe often take the appostrophe: one’s, someone’s, a person’s, a man’s, a woman’s, somebody’s, anybody’s; probably a few more of this ilk.

    3) I have never heard of using apostrophes to show standard noun plurals, misspelled or otherwise. I think certain sources declare their use with individual letter plurals (and don’t forget numbers and special signs) to be optional. My (very personal) preference is not to use them in that case in order to limit the use of apostrophes to possessives and contractions; sort of a “do not cross” line to make grammer just a bit neater.

    3) Until today, I’ve only seen “a week’s holiday”. Although it seems logically quite strange at first to imagine a holiday litterally “belonging” to a week, compare this to the phrase “my life’s work”. Although something can’t litterally belong to “my life”, the possessive in this case delimits the domain of the possessed. From another perspective, it simply takes the place of the word “of”. For example:

    a week’s holiday > a holiday of a/one week > a holiday of a week’s length > a holiday of the length of a/one week

  3. Zachary R. says:

    Just as Ben said, I just reverse the order of the words and replace ‘s by of. It just makes life easier. Which is why “a week’s holiday” sounds a lot better, because reversing it makes “the holiday of a/the week”.

    Another instance where we use the apostrophe is when we abreviate words or letters that normally shouldn’t be. This is mostly used when writing spoken speach and it’s also found in songs & poetry. For example, “O’er the mountain” (whereas the apostrophe replaces a “v”) or “Tha’d be th’day”.

  4. Stuart says:

    The correct usage is “a week’s holiday” – temporal expressions such as these use the apostophe

  5. Aaron says:

    My understanding is that the apostrophe was originally and always used to show omission of one or more letters, e.g. _and_ becomes _’n’_, or cannot becomes _can’t_. The reason I heard, and what seems most plausible to me, is that usage of apostrophe to indicate posessive based on the assumption (accurate or imagined) that phrases like _the dog’s bone_ started as contractions of _the dog his bone_. This also explains why the possesive for it — its — does not use an apostophe: _its_ is the possessive pronoun that would *cause* the apostrophe.

    I am uncertain of this theory for two reasons:
    1. The person I heard this from was linguist in the sense that he is very interested in, and studies language in general, but not in the sense that he is a traineed Theoretical Linguist.
    2. It fails to explain _her_: were it true, a phrase like _Jenny’s bicycle_ should be _Jenny’r bicycle_.

    However, item 2 could be explained by language planning: the competing forms were deliberately merged into a single form to rid the language of a useless exception. Alternatively, it could come from _has_ rather than _his_.

    Also, @Simon, regarding this sentance: “how can the abstract concept of a week or a day possess anything”:

    Grammatical posession is not the same actual possession. I can say “John’s wife is pleasant” but that doesn’t indicate that John actually owns his wife. Grammatical possession merely marks a relationship between items but cannot tell you what the relationship is. You might say that “In the Olden Days” a man actually did own his wife, but such an explanation fails to explain a phrase like _John’s father_, whom he certainly doesn’t own.

    I suppose the best way to put it, is that Grammatical Possession is less strong that Actual Possession.

  6. SamD says:

    I can understand how “a week’s holiday” might not sound right, but a “holiday of a week” seems at least as awkward to me. You could probably talk around it by referring to a “weeklong holiday.”

    I’m an American, so I would be more apt to say “a week’s vacation.” Our radio and television announcers often refer to “today’s weather” or “tomorrow’s forecast” or “next month’s election” and so forth. What might sound natural to me might not sound natural to British speakers of English and vice versa.

  7. Polly says:

    Aaron – Back in school a long time ago, it was explained to me the same way. The ‘s supposedly stands for “his.” It could also stand for “hers” but that wouldn’t make grammatical sense…maybe ‘r for “her”?
    Kind of sexist, but only men were probably allowed to own property in those olden days.

    Since, ‘s stands in for our apparent lack of an official, genitive case (I’ve never heard of English noun cases), I don’t have a problem with it functioning the same way as any other language. In the grammatical sense,”posession” is not limited to ownership. Like Zachary R. mentioned above, it just replaces “of…” It describes the relationship between two items/ people, etc.

  8. Polly says:

    SIMON – What does “your comment is awaiting moderation” mean? I saw that message for a while. But, then it disappeared.
    Just curious.

  9. SamD says:

    Here’s a real-life situation I just encountered. I sent a message to someone that I ended up changing to “I tried to pm you,” meaning that I tried to send a personal message. The first way I tried to write it was “I tried pm’ing you,” but I figured a non-native speaker might not understand that so easily. Somehow the word “pming” just doesn’t seem as transparent as “pm’ing.”

    The site in question gives users the option of sending members personal messages and there is button to send a “pm.”

  10. Simon says:

    Polly – your comment fell foul of my spam filters for some reason, and I had to manually approve it.

  11. Polly says:

    I thought so.
    Too many comments from me? :-D

  12. Aaron says:

    @SamD,

    Given the general rule — Apostrophe’s indicate that one or more letters are missing — I would say the _pm’ing_ is the more correct of the two. However, since we have a language which seems ever fond of initialisms, I think we ought to come with a better way to represent them, especially when the initialism is a verb. PM’ing or P.M.’ing or p.m.ing might work. I would use 1 or 2, given that inisialisms are usually capitalized and common-enough ones often appear without periods (which in this case have a similar function to the apostrophe).

    @Polly,
    RE: “Kind of sexist, but only men were probably allowed to own property in those olden days.”

    I think you missed my point, or at least my example. What I was saying was that even were that the case, I doubt anyone would have had a problem with a phrase like _Jenny’s father_ or (from the original example) _John’s father_ neither of whom actually owns the father in question, regardless of whether John or Jenny can own property.

    Also, as an additional note, the Wikipedia article on apostrophe mentioned that “The word comes from Greek hē apóstrophos (prosōidía), through Latin and French.” It would be interesting to find out how they were used in those 3 languages.

  13. Simon says:

    There’s an interesting post on the apostrophe on languagehat – apparently, according to the OED, the apostrophe “originally marked merely the omission of e in writing, as in fox’s, James’s, and was equally common in the nominative plural, esp. of proper names and foreign words”.

  14. Polly says:

    Aaron – Actually, I was thinking ahead of my writing. I was anticipating my reference to the “his” mentioned by Zachary R. when I said “sexist.” And, as I mentioned, I agree that grammatical “ownership” is not the same as the social construct that we employ in real life.

  15. Aaron says:

    @Polly,

    Ah. I thought that I might have misunderstood you. Cleared up now.
    Such is the problem with purely chronological comments. I don’t think that threaded comments ever look quite as nice — I like things lining up nice and neat — but they do make it quite a lot easier to tell who is responding to whom.

  16. BG says:

    I’m a little late but in German (at least proper German) and Ancient Greek (where the name came from) the apostrophe is used only indicate an omitted letter. In German it’s normally a contraction of “es” meaning it to ‘s, like in “Wie geht’s” = How’s it going.