They say the secret to entrepreneurship is to find a need and fill it. That’s why, when I moved here many years ago and was looking around for a way to make a living, I came up with the idea for “The Apostrophe Store.” Everywhere I looked I saw so many signs and sentences that were just screaming for apostrophes—
ITS NEVER TOO LATE
—that I figured if I sold ‘em even at a few cents a pop I would be a millionaire by next Tuesday.
Overhead would be low. Instead of buying apostrophes wholesale, I would simply cruise around the countryside in my pickup truck and remove them from places they didn’t belong.
THE SMITH’S HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THEIR HOUSE.
IT HAS A HOLE IN IT’S ROOF.
TARP’S FOR SALE!
The woods were stiff with them! Hauling them off would be a public service. How could I lose?
Alas, I always find a way. Salesmanship is a big part of entrepreneurism and I couldn’t sell snow cones in hell. Once, selling ads for The Planet, I told the owner of a restaurant, “Yum! That barbecue smell’s all the advertising you need.” After which, surprise, surprise, he declined to pay for an ad in my newspaper. With that kind of talent, how could I hope to make BUBBAS PLACE cough up for an apostrophe, when Bubba had always managed perfectly well without 'em? (Bubba thought they were something that city people used and country people don't fool with, like bidets, political correctness or Gs at the end of gerunds.)
So I gave up my dream of the Apostrophe Store and trained instead as a court reporter, only to continue being oppressed by apostrophe abuse. Now I had to figure out where to put the damn things when transcribing the speech of people who tossed the possessive case around like beach balls on seals' noses.
They were constantly saying stuff like:
Q: WHERE WAS THE THUG WHO ASSAULTED YOU'S MOTORCYCLE?
A: OUT IN THE PARKING LOT FOR THE PEOPLE WHO WORKED AT THE OFFICE'S CARS.
If you were writing an original sentence of your own about it, what you would probably write is something like:
Q: Where did the thug who assaulted you park his motorcycle?
A: In the back parking lot, where the restaurant employees park their cars.
But in writing down what somebody else says, you have no choice but to spread the wealth, using apostrophes as shown above to unfairly assign ownership of the cars to the restaurant and the motorcycle to “you,” the assaultee.
It got worse.
THE COLLEGE I WAS INTERESTED IN'S YEARLY TUITION WAS TOO HIGH.
HAD YOU SEEN THE RESTAURANT HE WANTED TO EAT AT'S MENU?
WHAT WAS THE BOY SHE WAS DATING'S NAME?
It was a bitter pill for a language Nazi to swallow, and after 10 years I could take no more. I went back to writing, where, though I barely scratched out a living, at least I could put apostrophes where they belonged.
Or not. I got a job reporting the local news for a small-town newspaper and as such came under the apostrophe jurisdiction of the Associated Press. AP style, like so many institutions in human history, was designed to make the world a better and fairer place but instead ended up slobbering insane and marauding around the countryside biting the heads off chickens.
I remember learning in Journalism 101 that newspapers followed AP's standardized usage rules to avoid irritating the reader. Well, everything AP does these days irritates me to the point of chewing chicken heads myself. Like the way they've started capitalizing the word “black” when referring to people while leaving the word “white” lowercase in the same situation? So you get sentences like: “A Black man was shot by a white man Tuesday.” Hey, isn't the whole point to treat everybody equally here?
Not to mention the sheer confusion for the writer: “Witnesses saw a Black man wearing a white shirt and Black--no! black--pants accompanied by a White--no! white-- woman wearing a Black--no! black--pantsuit and a black--no! Black--woman in a red--[Red? Oh, to hell with it!] sarong.” I keep rewriting sentences like that until I Black out.
I understand that we have a serious race problem in this country. I just don’t think AP’s doing anything to further social justice by screwing up the god damn language. But they've always done it. Before this we were all supposed to write “African-American” instead of “black.” What about black people who, like Barack Obama’s father, actually came from Africa? Were we supposed to write “African-African?”
Well! That wasn’t working out so the AP, who of all people should have known better, started playing fast and loose with the Shift key. That makes me bitter because as a newspaper writer I have spent my whole life doggedly lowercasing words that the PR writers insist on capping to make their companies seem more important. What the flacks, and now the AP, don’t seem to realize is that capitalizing words doesn’t make them seem any more important. What it does is make you feel you should say them louder. Like you should scream them! Like you should hire a skywriter or dancing girls. As in: The white woman wore a green dress and the BLACK woman wore a red one.” “The police officer was white and the pedestrian was BLACK!
BLACK! BLACK! BLACK!"
Did you hear me? I said:
!!! B L A C K !!!!
And then there was the AP's weird decision decades ago to promote the equality of the sexes by pretending that females are called by their unadorned last names, even if it's the married name of the wife of somebody famous you really do call by their last name, as in--
TRUMP RAISED EYEBROWS BY POSING NUDE, WITH ONE HAND ON ANOTHER MODEL'S VAGINA, FOR A MEN'S MAGAZINE.
--or 7 years old, as in
RUSZKOWSKI, AFTER BEING NAMED SECOND GRADE SWEETHEART, WENT ON TO WIN THE LITTLE MISS PLEASANTDALE PAGEANT.
Again, you appreciate the idea of treating everybody the same, but what social justice is forwarded by making the Ruszkowskis' baby girl sound like she chews tobacco? As for the first example, it was Melania Trump who posed in a lesbian-themed men's photo spread nude with her hand on somebody else's nether regions, while her husband, President Donald Trump, famously bragged about "grabbing pussies." Thus, if you call them both "Trump," how is the reader to keep it straight whose parts are being groped by whom?
Another irritatin' newspaper usage I've seen lately is use of the word "over" instead of the word "about." As in headlines like: COUNTY MAYOR BERATES FIREFIGHTERS OVER WATER WASTAGE." Or: CIVIL LIBERTIES GROUP PLANS MARCH OVER VOTER SUPPRESSION. This is not so much a matter of social justice as of plain old English usage. What’s wrong with the word “about?” What did it do to piss AP off? I guess you could get away with saying CITIZEN SUES CITY OVER POLICE BRUTALITY, though I think you should say “about” police brutality. But you just can’t say CITIZEN QUESTIONS CITY OVER POLICE BRUTALITY and they’ve gotten to where they do it every time.
About and over are not interchangeable. If you’re fighting with someone about something, it means you disagree—“She and her husband always fought about illegal immigration.” If you’ve fighting over something it means both of you want it. “She and her sister were fighting over some man.”
But I guess at this point you’re thinking, OK, beech, get over it (about it?). And in fact, weren’t we talking about--over? never mind!--discussing apostrophes?
So. AP and apostrophes. I still remember reading with shock in the AP “Blue Book” that words ending in S, including names, were to be made possessive with a final apostrophe but no S, as in JAMES’ UNCLE. This sort of hard-and-fast rule, I thought at the time, lent guidance in the daily dilemma of whether to say the apostrophized form of “James” as one syllable—as if it were spelled JAME’S UNCLE DIED YESTERDAY—or two, as if it were spelled JAMESES’ SISTER INHERITED HIS MONEY. JAMES GOT THE CAT.
But obviously they were only requiring you to spell it James’. You could pronounce it JAMESES' if you liked. So I didn’t have strong feelings either way. But when they went on to give more examples. I simply could not accept the awkward final-S-lessness of ROSS’ BROTHER IS DATING THE BOSS’ DAUGHTER.
You can see that AP just wanted to make a rule and follow it. Just as you put an apostrophe but not another S on a possessive plural word that already ends in one—THE KIDS' ROOM (though it's perfectly acceptable to put an apostrophe and an S after a plural word that does not end in S—THE CHILDREN'S ROOM), they were determined to treat singular words the same way.
The problem is that ROSS’ and BOSS’ look like they should be pronounced as one syllable, like really you should spell ‘em RAH’S BROTHER and BAH’S DAUGHTER. Or THE WITNEH’S TESTIMONY. And THE ASSOCIATED PREH'S, for that matter, because, coincidentally, just last night I read an AP story where it referred to its own self that way: "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS' POLICY."
To hell with it. I ain't doing it.
People want to pronounce that possessive. They need to. It’s human nature. That’s why we in the Chattanooga area still say, and write, ROSS'S LANDING as opposed to ROSS' LANDING no matter what the AP says.
People will pronounce the extra S even when it's not there and shouldn't be there. When I was a court reporter I had a witness who referred to buying bunk beds for THE KIDSES' ROOM.
One way or the other I have a long, troubled history with the apostrophe, so before The Planet sinks altogether into the West I wanted to say my piece about it.
The Oxford Languages definition of the apostrophe say it is used to indicate “either possession (e.g., Harry's book ; boys' coats ) or the omission of letters or numbers (e.g., can't ; he's ; class of ’99 ).” Oxford doesn’t even mention the third function, which Wikipedia refers to as “the marking of plurals of individual characters (e.g. p's and q's).”
Oxford made the right call on that one. Apostrophes should never be used to form plurals. It should be made a capital offense. I will concede that some people might be confused by SHE MADE ALL AS IN SCHOOL or MAKE SURE TO CROSS YOUR TS AND DOT YOUR IS." But when you allow people to plug in an apostrophe in those cases you are opening the door to orgies like BOOK’S FOR SALE! WE’RE HAVING BLACK-EYED PEA’S FOR DINNER. WE’RE EATING WITH THE MARTIN’S.
A word about that last example: I’ve seen people who are otherwise sound in their English trying to apostrophize families—THE KENNEDY’S ARE RICH. THEM PURVIS’S IS ALL TRASH. But it’s just wrong. Don't do it. The rule on families is that almost all of them are pluralized with a simple S, even when it looks weird, like THE KENNEDYS, or ES if they end with an S: THE PURVISES.
What about names that already look plural, like BANKS or RAINES? As far as I’m concerned they get the ES, too: THE BANKSES, THE RAINESES. I’ve known people, though, who have S-ending family names and insist on leaving it at that for the plural, and I guess they should be allowed to do what they like with their own names (as long as they don’t put in an apostrophe). So though I myself would write CARRUTHERSES, I don't reckon it's incorrect for them to say: WE CARRUTHERS IS AWFUL IGNOR’NT.
Which brings us to the next legitimate usage for the apostrophe: as an indication that a letter or number has been left out. The Oxford definition uses contractions for examples: The apostrophe in can’t denotes that the N and O have been left out of cannot; the one in he’s stands in for the I in he is. In ma'am, the apostrophe stands in for the D in Madam. (I see that one abused all the time--MAM, MA AM, MAAM--and I always think, "That ain't no way to treat a lady.")
You can also use the apostrophe for omitted numbers in years, such as writing THE '60S instead of THE 1960S or '15 instead of 2015. I have no problem with that, except that people are easily confused and they take the rule as license to write THE 60'S or THE 1800's. No, no, no. That's using the apostrophe to pluralize and remember, you could get the chair for that if I ever make it into Congress.
Apostrophes are also used in written accounts to show that letters are missing from spoken words. This is of particular importance here in the South, where we routinely don't pronounce the interior letter L--
WE SPENT OUR VACATION IN GU'FPOINT
I CAIN'T HE'P IT IF I'M STILL IN LOVE WITH YOU
--the final letter G--
IT WON'T BE LONG BEFORE IT'S CRYIN' TIME.
HONEY, YOU IS ONE GOOD-LOOKIN' MAN!
--and for some weird-ass reason, other random letters in other random positions in other random words.
AH GOT SO SICK AH TH'EW UP MAH LUNCH
TIFTON'A (I've never figured that one out but that's the way they say it in Tiftonia.)
Even when not transcribing the words of others, writers will frequently apostrophize words to lend a breezy, colloquial tone, as in--
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM, JOIN 'EM
THE ANSWER IS BLOWIN' IN THE WIND
SHE LOOKED LIKE SHE WAS FIXIN' TO BITE THE HEAD OFF A CHICKEN.
An interesting point in the last example is that never in the history of mankind has anyone ever said, "I am fixing to bite the head off a chicken." If you were the type of person to pronounce the final G in FIXING you wouldn't use the word that way. I'm not sure if you would still chew the chicken. But shall we move on?
Now we've come to the grim couple of minutes we have to spend on ITS versus IT'S. This is one of those instances where I'm analogous to a mother who, when she finds her two sons fighting, feels like beating the crap out of both of them because they're both bad boys. On the one hand, I paid attention in the third grade when we covered the difference between ITS and IT'S. Everybody else, presumably, was doing something more fun, possibly going to one of those parties I didn't get invited to, where they had cupcakes. That gets on my nerves.
On the other hand, I do understand why people want to put the apostrophe on the possessive form of IT. We for heaven's sake put it on other possessives: THE LADY'S HANDS. THE MAN'S FISTS. THE DINOSAUR'S CLAWS.
But we do not put the apostrophe on possessive pronouns, do we? So HER HANDS. HIS FISTS. ITS CLAWS (unless you know the dinosaur's gender, of course, and if you want to turn it over and check, knock yourself out).
Anyway, please, please, please do not put the apostrophe on the possessive form of IT. But you must put it on the contraction of IT IS. So:
EVERY DOG HAS ITS DAY
AND NOW IT'S TIME FOR MINE!
Again, this is just one of those cases where English is an unfair language, like when it gives us two ways to spell one word--CAPITAL and CAPITOL, STATIONARY and STATIONERY, DISCRETE and DISCREET--just so it can dance around calling us stupid when we get it wrong. There's no way around it. You must be vigilant and you have to proofread. Petty as it seems, when I see an online article headed ITS THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN or PARTISAN POLITICS AT IT'S WORST, I think FAKE NEWS and move on. You wanta be taken seriously, you gotta have serious apostrophes.
That's my apostrophe advice for people writing English. Proofread! For people who are merely speaking it, I would admonish you, when you apostrophize, to have pity on those of us in the unhappy position of having to write down what you say. The single most important rule in this regard is to keep your oral apostrophes as close as possible to the noun you want to assign possession to. So:
THE CAT'S WHISKERS
THE CAT JAMES GOT WHEN HIS UNCLE DIED'S WHISKERS
THE CAT JAMES GOT WHEN HIS UNCLE DIED AND HIS SISTER INHERITED HIS MONEY'S WHISKERS
And certainly not:
THE CAT JAMES GOT WHEN HIS UNCLE DIED AND HIS SISTER INHERITED HIS MONEY LAST CHRISTMAS'S WHISKERS
(Note: If we were following AP style, we would have to write:
THE CAT JAMES GOT WHEN HIS UNCLE DIED AND HIS SISTER INHERITED HIS MONEY LAST CHRISTMAS' WHISKERS.)
(Luckily, we are not.)
All those examples I call cases of the displaced and delayed possessive. I will add to this rogues' gallery of apostrophe abuses another: The case of the displaced, delayed and double possessive, which comes into play when you have a noun that already has an apostrophe, like:
“THE THUG WHO ASSAULTED YOU'S MOTORCYCLE WAS IN THE PARKING LOT FOR PEOPLE WHO WORKED AT THE MACY'S'S CARS.”
And let us not forget the displaced, delayed, double and disastrous hangin'-offense possessive, as illustrated here in a memorable sentence uttered by my husband: HE WAS STAYING AT A FRIEND OF HIS'S HOUSE IN ATLANTA.
Even in spoken usage, even in the most casual conversation, people's formation of the possessive should be better than this. Especially people married to me's formation of the possessive. Especially people who have been married to me for over 30 years' formation of the possessive.
Yes. That was a joke. But it's true I'm getting punchy. A person who has written 3000 words about apostrophes' judgment can get a little cloudy, if you know what I mean. I had better stop before I lose whoever is still reading at this point's interest.
But if you are still interested in apostrophes, I know where you can buy some! Local buildings abandoned by small business owners bankrupted by the COVID-19 lockdown's rents are at historic lows. I plan to open my apostrophe emporium in one of them, representing three decades of thwarted dreams of glory's realization.
It will be a small, friendly Southern business, so that when you come in I will greet you at the door:
WELCOME TO THE APOSTROPHE STORE! MAY I HE'P YOU?
--Robin Ford Wallace
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