Friday, February 27, 2009

Lets stop abusing apostrophe's.


I've long wondered about this sign, which I walk by two or three times almost every day. Do the St. Francis Terriers bring their suits here for cleaning? This neighborhood is called Brooklyn Heights: does the sign intend to signify that the store belongs to the community? But, then, shouldn't it be "Heights' Cleaners"?

There are two bad things you can do respecting the apostrophe (and I've done them both in the caption of this post). One is to fail to put one where it is needed; the other is to use one where it isn't appropriate. The first seems to me to be less of a problem these days (except, perhaps, in Birmingham and Wakefield). Apostrophes are required on two occasions. First, they are used to take the place of omitted letters and spaces in contractions. For example, the apostrophe in "let's" (which I wrongly omitted in the caption) replaces the space and letter "u" in "let us". This is one of those rare rules of English to which I know of no exception. If anyone knows of a contraction that doesn't take an apostrophe, I'd be glad to hear from you.

(It's always hazardous to say that any rule of English has no exception. There's an anecdote about the late Sidney Morgenbesser, who taught philosophy at Columbia University for many years, that illustrates this point. A proponent of logical positivism was giving a talk at Columbia in which he asserted that an interesting property of English is that, while a double negative is always properly construed as a positive, there is no instance in which a double positive is considered a negative. Morgenbesser interrupted, in a world-weary voice, with "Yeah, yeah.")

The other instance in which an apostrophe is required is where the possessive form of a noun is formed by adding "'s" after the root form of the noun. This doesn't apply to possessive pronouns, such as hers, his (actually, I suppose, a contraction of "hims"--perhaps this is my exception to the contraction rule), its (thereby avoiding confusion with the contraction form), theirs, and yours. Note that there is no distinction between the possessive forms of nouns and contractions involving those nouns, e.g. "The refrigerator's door is open" and "The refrigerator's not working", or "Tom's car is red" and "Tom's a good fellow."

Where I've seen lots and lots of abuse lately is in the insertion of apostrophes where they are not appropriate; i.e. in the plurals of nouns where the plural is formed by adding "s" to the noun root (this is the second example in my caption). Today, in an even-Homer-nods moment, award-winning Brooklyn Paper editor Gersh Kuntzman, in his Brooklyn Angle column about the controversy over whether Park Slope Food Co-Op might boycott Israeli products, wrote (with his usual becoming modesty):

Last week, I became the lone journalist (in the nation, it appeared) who reported the emmes, to use the Yiddish word for truth, that the famously liberal, member’s-only supermarket on Union Street was NOT — I repeat, not — considering a ban on Israeli-made or -grown products.
Now, I will cut Gersh a bit of slack here: the term "members only" does have a possessive cast to it. Nevertheless, the word "members" here is clearly used as a plural, not as a possessive. Moreover, if it were a possessive, it would be a plural possessive, in which case the proper form would be "members' only", not "member's".

Why is there so much of a problem with the misuse of apostrophes in plurals? My theory is that it started with the spread of acronyms and all-caps abbreviations, the first of which to come into common usage was probably "TV". Somehow, it seemed more natural to write "We have two TV's" than "two TVs", even though the apostrophe doesn't indicate a possessive or substitute for any missing letters or spaces. Perhaps it just felt barbarous to shove that poor little lower case "s" right up against that big capital "V". A similar problem arose in connection with plurals of numerical terms, e.g. "During the 1920's, jazz became widely popular." I believe there are some style mavens who think this is correct; that it's just wrong to allow a letter to rub against a number without the imposition of an apostrophe as a bundling board. I say, "Fie upon them!" Plurals of acronyms or abbreviations (TVs, CDs, HMOs, etc.) and numerical terms (1920s, 1040s, and so on) don't need apostrophes. Possessives of these terms are a different story.

So endeth the lesson. Go, and sin no more. If you want to go the extra mile, join The Apostrophe Protection Society.

3.1 update: Talk about Homer nodding! In his New York Times op-ed column today, Frank Rich wrote:
Now [Obama] can move on and let his childish adversaries fight among themselves, with Rush Limbaugh as the arbitrating babysitter. (Last week he gave Jindal a thumb's up.)
I could imagine Tom Friedman making a mistake like that, but Frank?

3.4 update: Friend and faithful S-AB reader Ellen reminds me of another grammatical pet peeve: the loss of the possessive in sentences like, "I appreciate your being on the show", which today usually gets reduced to "...you being on the show." She also points out that "thumb's" in the Frank Rich column may have been a copy editor's or proofreader's error that Frank never got a chance to correct.

Twif, I heart your truly unique comment.

Final update: the sign has been changed.

Post a Comment