Alternate Title: Catapostrophy!
Language Nerd, Language Nerd, people who can’t use apostrophes right make me crazy. Why are they so difficult for so many? -Amelia
In order to understand the trials and travails for the apostrophe of today, we must first look to the apostrophes of yesteryear. The yesterpostrophes, if you will. Take all that follows with salt,* because those interested in the history of English only began writing about the apostrophe after it became complicated — its simpler origins are rather more murky.
Originally, the apostrophe had one job and one job only: show where letters are left out. Thus “can not” becomes “can’t,” “they are” becomes “they’re,” “who would” becomes “who’d,” you know how it goes. During this apostraphal golen age, singular nouns took the ending “-es” when they were in the possessive case. (We’ve talked a bit about case before — possessive case just shows that some noun owns another noun.) This “-es” ending was often among the many happy contractions: “the girles books” became “the girl’s books,” “the doges joy” became “the dog’s joy.”** So far so good.
Then, one dark and stormy night, English speakers mad with power began to associate the apostrophe not just with contractions, but with the possessive case. Someone, somewhere, decided that they would mark the plural possessive case with an apostrophe, too, even though there weren’t any letters being removed. Thus, “some girls’ books.”
And the apostrophe went straight to hell.
If an apostrophe doesn’t have to be showing lost letters, what can’t it do? And if we can associate it with possessives in general, why not with plurals in general? Even in traditional grammar books, apostrophes can be used to mark the plurals of (old) words that end in long vowels, like “folio’s”; of letters and numbers, as in “we always dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s back in the 90’s”; and of grammatical function words, as in “this sentence has too many of’s.” People also use them often to pluralize acronyms, like “SUV’s,” and this use seems to be in a grey area. Is it really any surprise that we quickly get to “apple’s for sale” as well? And this does not even touch the enormous number of bizarre jobs the apostrophe can take on when transcribing foreign words, from marking a strong puff of air in Korean “p’ija” (this is absolutely not the transcription stye I use) to living life as if it were a letter itself in Arabic ع, transcibed ‘ayn.
Perhaps more important is the it’s/its dilemma. Though a wee little problem on its own, it creates apostrophe angst far beyond its size. By all logic, we should write them the same way — “it is” should become “it’s” because it’s contracted, and possessive “its” should really also be “it’s” to show its possessiveness. (Go ahead, reread that sentence. They’re correct.) But we don’t, and this leads to a deep and abiding uncertainty about what does and does not need an apostrophe.
So what is going to happen to the apostrophe over the long term? Our current state of mishmash rules can’t last forever. My guess is that we will have fewer apostrophes in the future. People currently tend to avoid them in many constructions — I rewrote the third sentence of this post to “the history of English” because “English’s history” looked so odd. Marking the possessive case at all may be on the downswing (it’s gone in many dialects, shown by word order instead). Before that makes you too sad, remember that we used to mark our objective cases too, and nobody misses that now. And maybe one day we’ll have simplified so much that the apostrophe will once more be used only for what it’s best at: showin’ wher’ l’tt’rs aren’t.
The Language Nerd
*Now where does that expression come from, I wonder? Maybe it’s time for a post on idioms.
**Well, not really, because they were using Middle English equivalents of these phrases. But you get the idea.
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Only one source this time — Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language, a common source around here.
UPDATE: You guys, this post was really not meant to invite people to e-mail me apostrophe examples. That’s kind of the opposite of the point here?