A word to the wise – March 2009

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

by Gerald Waite

You may have noticed the story in the papers recently: Birmingham (England) is officially dropping the apostrophe from street and place signs, for example in names like St. Paul’s Square. Actually, the city had been ignoring the apostrophe unofficially for years, stirring frequent protests. But now it is official policy.
Why? The council finds the apostrophe both old fashioned and confusing. Confusing it is to many people, but then so is the comma and the pluperfect subjunctive, and no one wants to ban those, I think.
Quite a few folks subscribe to a whimsical policy on the apostrophe: when in doubt, throw one in for any words ending in –s. I was struck by the common misunderstanding over this mark years ago as I passed by rural mailboxes and saw every variety of apostrophe use with residents’ names, from Johnson’s and Johnsons’ to the Johnson’s (which doesn’t work) or to none at all, the safest respectable choice. In fact, I wrote a column about it almost six years ago, but since not even my editor remembers it, let us try again to clarify this silly little problem. It’s not too tricky.
Two uses, basically, are appropriate for the apostrophe: to signify a letter or letters missing in contractions, and to indicate the possessive case in nouns and some pronouns.
The first instance poses no real difficulty. We write isn’t for is not, they’re for they are, or o’clock for of the clock.
The possessive case, on the other hand, means a noun or a pronoun becomes the equivalent of an adjective. Thus, one noun can precede and modify another noun. The apostrophe thus magically expands our verbal flexibility, and with economy. Rather than say the ink of the printer, we can simply say printer’s ink.
While one could describe a fair number of special exceptions, the following points cover ninety-nine percent of punctuation questions with possessives.
• Does the apostrophe go before or after the -s? For a singular noun like snow or Johnson, put -’s at the end, as in the snow’s crust or Bill Johnson’s house.
• What about plurals? If the noun already ends in –s, simply add an apostrophe and skip the extra –s, as in all the bridesmaids’ dresses, not bridesmaids’s. If the plural does NOT end in –s, you do add –’s, as in women’s role.
• How can you tell whether a word ending in –’s is possessive in the first place? Try this trick. Turn the phrase around by using “of the.” For bridesmaids’ dresses, try dresses of the bridesmaids. Is that what you mean? In a singular, the snow’s crust means crust of the snow.
• Which is right, its or it’s? Either could be, and this confusion leads to the most common abuse of the apostrophe. Keep in mind that words like it, he or she and they are pronouns. They substitute for nouns, and for them the rule for possessive is turned on its head. They do NOT take the apostrophe in possessive. If we use the pronoun, the dog’s bark would be its bark or his bark.
With pronouns, the apostrophe can signify only a contraction, e.g. it’s as a short form of it is.
You might feel some sympathy with the city fathers of Birmingham. And after all, in the United States, the post office dropped the apostrophe some years ago from addresses like Martha’s Vineyard. Further, the Geographic Board reportedly has campaigned against it for many decades. Looking at a random area on my Michigan map identifies—in Osceola County near Reed City—Thompsons Heights, which is near Waiters Road, and not far from Kings Highway, Kellars Corners and Pecks Lake Road.
This can all get personal. I checked a little corner of New York state, just across the border from Bennington (Vermont), looking for places named after a Revolutionary War era ancestor. I found Waites Lane, Waites Way and Waites Hill Road. Alas, not an apostrophe to share among them. I can only hope the local sign makers have more grammatical integrity.

Word for the month
Irish bull. Here is a phrase for March, during which we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It describes an incongruous or absurd statement that on first blink sounds sensible, like these. “She only drinks when alone or with others,” or “It’s hereditary in their family not to have children.”

— Gerald Waite
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