By Barry’s beard!

AND the student said, bold as a first year: “You don’t know what you are talking about, Chindu. I have done my A-levels. And that’s not what they taught us!”

Actually, the student didn’t say quite that. But if I were to summarise the response I get when I talk about the apostrophe, that’s how I would put it.

In my three years of marking student work, nothing has given me more pain than the apostrophe: my teeth are all gnashed-out now, and I think I am in need of an urgent hair transplant. Good grief, how difficult is it to grasp it’s is a bit different from its? And your and you’re are not really the same?

I digress. It’s not such mundane usages I want to pick on today. What gets my goat more is how the poor ‘postrophe is used to ‘drop’ –- the purpose English printers adopted it for originally -– a certain s in a certain possessive. Let me take you to my classroom…

“Barry Richards’s beard, is that correct?” I say. “Or should it be Barry Richards’ beard?”

“Barry Richards’ beard,” they say confidently. “You don’t need the second s.”

“Actually,” I say, “you do need the second s.”

Which is when my students tell me I am rubbish. Sometimes, seeing me all crestfallen, the sensitive among them offer me an honourable exit.

“It’s up to you,” they say soothingly. “You can keep the s if you want, Chindu — it’s a matter of choice.”

Beg your pardon. It’s not a matter of choice.

THE rule is this. To indicate possession in a singular ending in s, you need an apostrophe and a second s. So it is Barry Richards’s beard and Bronwen Thomas’s beauty.

Think about it this way. If the beard belonged to Jim Pope, we wouldn’t write Jim Pope’ beard, would we? Nor would we think it entirely appropriate to put down Jim Pope’ beauty (not that Jim is lacking in beauty, mind). So I don’t think it is fair to deprive poor Barry and Bronwen their due just because they are richer by an s. Luckily, Lynne Truss agrees with me (Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2005, page 55). So does the University of Ottawa, the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, and Fowler’s (Fowler’s used to recommend dropping the second s, though I could be mistaken there).

Perhaps it would help if we looked at how the ’s came to indicate possession. English printers first used the apostrophe some time in the 16th century. Its sole purpose then was to show omission of letters, and thus it stayed for a fair few decades, while Shakespeare energetically dreamt up apostrophic dialogue for Hamlet and other worthies.

Till then –- and here I quote The Dreaded Apostrophe — possession in English was shown by adding an es at the end of the word. Thus, if you wanted to write about the beard that belonged to Barry, you wrote Barryes beard.

Came the 17th century. The printers, bored silly with the es business, decided to drop the e. What do you do when you omit a letter? That’s correct, use an apostrophe. And thus came about the Barry’s beard we see today.

Things would have been simpler if they had stopped at that. But no, along the way, someone decided the possessive of plural words ending with an s needed modification. Take, for instance, the word parentses, which was now, apostrophically, parents’s. To write it with the second s, this someone decided, was a bit daft. So today we write parents’ house, not parents’s house.

Now I can’t for the life of me think why they didn’t do the same in the case of singular words as well. Perhaps they didn’t want to work the poor apostrophe too hard. Or they just liked to complicate things. But the fact is, they didn’t, and we are stuck with Thomas’s beauty and parents’ house –- and neither is a matter of choice.

Don’t think that’s it. There are exceptions to this rule as well (as if it wasn’t confusing enough). Jesus, for instance, doesn’t need an extra s. Nor does any name from the ancient world. And if a word ends with an iz sound, then again, no s after the ’postrophe. There’s more, but I will refer you to Truss’s (now this third s, I don’t like at all; doesn’t look nice typographically) excellent Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
LET me wind up with a final note. Is it 1920s? Or 1920’s? Most of us would go for the former. Some of us might also say the latter is incorrect -– and it is here I advice caution.

If I am not mistaken, not too long ago, ’s was used to indicate the plural of numbers (and also acronyms, for instance, CD’s, thus). Blame it on the printers again. Possibly this was because the typefaces they worked with weren’t as ‘clean’ as the ones we have now, plus the headlines those days were mostly in capital letters — which was where the apostrophe came in, to stop letters from jumbling together.

Those days are over, luckily. Today, though ’s is used to indicate the plural of lowercase letters (for instance, p’s and q’s not ps and qs), to see it used with numbers or acronyms is unconventional. Unconventional, I say, but still in vogue, especially on the other side of the ocean — the venerable New York Times, for instance, still continues with 1920’s.

Perhaps, in this particular case, it is a matter of choice.



The row over the apostrophe has continued in the last six years (this post was originally published in 2007). Here’s a delightful piece from the Independent, on how its usage is changing (do read). My take? If you are going into journalism, you might need to stick to the traditional version for some more time. Nothing gets the blood of a sub boiling than a misplaced apostrophe, trust me!


1 Comment

  1. Sridevi R · September 24, 2009

    Excuse me…you’r worried about the apostrophe when pple are swollowing large chunks of letters in the amusement called texting? Probably, out there punctuation marks are becoming almost extinct.

    Btw, aren’t we allowed to drop letters to modify the language if it works. Isn’t it a better choice to reconsider the ‘ss’s’ rather than tongue twisting? (I enjoyed the Panda that eats, shoots and leaves.)

    But I agree with you, language would be on disablity pension if not for some English teachers struggling to rehabilitate it. Good job!

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