Friday, January 05, 2007

His’ Apostrophe’s Are A Mes’s

Q. It's that time of year again. I go bonkers when I read "New Years sale" or "Happy New Years'." How did this start and why?
Ted on Old Mission Peninsula, MI.

A. Confusion about the proper use of apostrophes started about the time they were invented in the 16th century. Part of the difficulty came from the dichotomy between spoken language and written language. The apostrophe is seen only in the written form, but certain complications carry over from speech.

Let me preface this answer by saying that some of the information that I present here is found in a succinct, well-written paper originally co-authored by Christina Cavella and Robert Knodle for a graduate class at Washington University in 2003.

Traditionally, the apostrophe signified an omission or elision, particularly when the letter -e- began to drop out in the common Old English genitive singular spelling -es (the groomes horse). Later, many writers mistakenly took the -‘s to be a contraction of the word his (the groom his horse).

As time went on, writers began to use an apostrophe to signify vocal omission (‘gainst his foes), elision (‘phone for telephone), to prevent confusion (cross your t’s and dot your i’s), and so forth.

Today, the tendency is to drop the apostrophe where once it would have been required. We see this especially in company and organization names. A relatively new distinction has arisen: if the organization is for the benefit of, but not actually owned by a particular group, don’t use an apostrophe. Thus, we have Department of Veterans Affairs, Citizens Insurance, Consumers Energy, and Farmers Market, none of them owned by the group in question. But we’d have a veteran’s benefit check, citizens’ groups, and the farmer’s daughter.

It is instructive to note that grammar experts disagree. We find these rules for the possessive in Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage:
• to form a singular possessive, add -s to most singular nouns--even those ending in -s, -ss, and -x
• for most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final -s

The 14th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style disagrees with Garner’s addition of -‘s to singular nouns ending in -s, -ss, and -x, citing tradition and euphony for constructions such as for righteousness’ sake and for conscience’ sake.

Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says to use the -‘s with proper nouns (Dickens’s novels, the Jones’s house), but allows that the apostrophe by itself shows up in biblical and classical names (Jesus’ time, Odysseus’ journey).

Cavella and Knodle conclude that the apostrophe will eventually disappear, and they may well be correct.

SIDEBAR: England’s Apostrophe Protection Society

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