“It’s,” Complicated: National Grammar Day and Apostrophe Abuse

Yesterday was National (U.S.) Grammar Day, which is the high holy day for us word nerds. Everyone celebrates in their own way–I celebrate by using the singular “they” and ritually burning seven copies of Strunk & White–but one thing that is constant across all of nerddom is the worship of Almighty Grammar. Adherence to Grammar will save us: it will make us happy. It will get us the best job. It will increase our sexiness by 400%.

It’s a shame then that Grammar is so damned mercurial. A cursory look at the history of most usage issues tagged as “grammar” shows that “correct” hasn’t always been–and I’m not just referring to those fine-grain shibboleths of usage that no one can quite get right, like whether you should use “different from” or “different than.” Let’s keep things simple. Let’s talk about the apostrophe.

That hanging tittle is the source of much grammatical spleen, plenty of it vented in the dictionary’s general direction around National Grammar Day (though punctuation is officially outside our wheelhouse). My inbox is chock full of variations on “I hate people who can’t use apostrophes because it’s so simple,” and as proof of its simplicity, sometimes my correspondents even use the proper “it’s” in their complaint. (Sometimes.) But if it’s so simple, as they claim, then how do so many smart people get it so wrong?

The apostrophe first appeared in English sometime in the 16th century, possibly ganked into English printing from Italian or French conventions. Not much is written on the development of the apostrophe, but we know that when it first showed up in English print, it was used to signal that a letter (or several letters) had been omitted in a construction. “She’ll” is a contraction of “she will” or “she shall”; “’tis” is a contraction of “it is”; “‘zbud” and “‘sbodkins” are contractions of “God’s blood” and “God’s bodkins” and truly magnificent in the way that only 17th-century euphemisms can be.

This habit continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries, growing beyond its little garden plot. Apostrophes were sometimes used to clarify pronunciation for the reader, especially in poetry: “banish’d” was clearly meant to be spoken as two syllables to keep scansion tidy and look very Byronic, whereas “banished” could be three, particularly in some florid Drydenesque constructions. Daniel Defoe took this further: he used “cou’d” and “wou’d” in his writings to show that the “l” in “could” and “would” was silent, though I’d wager that most people who were reading Defoe likely knew about “could” and “would.”

That damn’d apostrophe was so handy that sometime around the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, people began to use it to signal possession. It makes a great deal of sense: does “Drydens harrumphing” refer to the harrumphing of one John Dryden, or to a whole army of John Drydens making their displeasure known? We can make that clear with just one blob of well-placed ink! And so the apostrophe was liberally sprinkled among all our nouns and pronouns to mark possession.

Nouns and pronouns, mind. So while we have the now-familiar “Dryden’s harrumphing” and “dog’s breakfast,” we also ended up with “her’s,” “their’s,” “our’s,”  “your’s,” and–yes, gird thy loins–“it’s,” which were in use as possessive pronouns through the 17th and 18th centuries. Boo, you cry, stupid, but not at all. It’s very logical: if that apostrophe was going to mark possession, then it was going to mark possession goddamned everywhere.

As a possessive marker, the apostrophe is fairly straightforward unless the base word ends in “-s,” and then everything falls all to hell. Is it “Davy Jones’s locker,” or “Davy Jones’ locker?” Yes. Is it “Jesus’s wounds?” Good lord no, of course it is not, why would you even think that? It is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” Why? Heed my words, O nerd: where were you when I laid the foundations of the possessive?

We had punctuation mania: by the 19th century, we were using apostrophes to make single letters plural, as in “p’s and q’s.” There is no logical explanation for this, apart from the fact that “ps and qs” looks odd and might result in some hapless chump spitting all over himself trying to pronounce “qs” as if it were Arabic and not \KEWS\. The pluralizing apostrophe also shows up by the 20th century in numbers (“alternative banjo music of the 1890’s”) and when referring to a word as a word  (“too many ‘apostrophe’s’ in this blog post”), and then later in abbreviations (“RSVP’s”) and with symbols (“&’s”), because why the hell not? Never mind that the apostrophe initially was just intended as a stand-in for elision: we wrested it away from those Europeans with all their diacritic corsetry and let it breathe.

The result is that we have a handful of ways to use the apostrophe, none of which were ever consistently “correctly” used. “‘Til,” a contraction of “until,” has lost ground and the peeververein’s favor to “till” and “til.” At end of the 19th century, you still saw possessives used without the apostrophe–“a stones throw” still shows up in edited prose today. By the time that Robert Lowth was writing his grammar in the mid-1700s, he felt that “its” (no apostrophe) was the correct possessive of “it,” though he hewed to “her’s,” “their’s,” and “our’s.” And the apostrophized plural of letters has been inconsistent from the year dot: “bs” and “b’s” and “beez” and “bees” have all been used in print.

What this means for the modern apostrophizer, of course, is that instead of having one or two simple rules to govern apostrophe use, we now have a jam jar full of smudgy guidelines that don’t have any consistent historical application. Even the most consistent rule–the elision rule–gets fubar’d in real life. How long, O Lord, til you end our “ya’ll” sorrow? And that, remember, is the easy rule. What do you do if you are referring to the house that belongs to the married couple with the last name “Jones”? You practically need a fold-out flow chart to figure out whether “the Joneses house” gets an apostrophe and where.

And here’s the rub: the rules are continuing to change. We’re slowly losing those plural apostrophes in “the 1890s” and “RSVPs.” In Britain especially, the possessive apostrophe in some business names like “Harrod’s” and “Waterstone’s” has scarpered. These changes are themselves inconsistent. “RSVPs” but “OD’d”; “the 1890s” but “the ’90s.” But “RSVP’s” just looks right to me, even though I know that “RSVPs” is more common now and I am ostensibly in the know vis-a-vis apostrophes. The heart wants what it wants.

Considering all this, it’s not too surprising that the grocer’s apostrophe flourishes, that people still send out holidays cards signed “The Jones’s,” that even smart people confuse “it’s” and “its.” None of us–not a single one of us–has gotten the apostrophe right in every circumstance because “right” is a moving target, and that’s the thing that we lose sight of during National Grammar Day. I like grammar in all her forms (both linguistic and populist), but I will not hold her up as the eternal unchanging ideal to which all people’s intelligence and fitness must be compared.

I once dated a man who was smart, kind, witty, and incredibly good-looking, and we occasionally exchanged handwritten letters. A few months ago while cleaning out the basement, I came across his letters to me and read a few of them. They were intelligent, funny, throat-baringly honest–and dotted with a couple misused apostrophes. I received these letters during a time when I was an insufferable asshole-pedant, when I freely corrected wrong “who”s and offered unsolicited advice about the terminal preposition because it was proof I was smart. And yet I evidently never corrected this guy, though it would have been just like me to correct the punctuation of someone to whom I was pitching woo (cf. “asshole,” above). It’s almost as though all his other excellent qualities eclipsed his occasional issues with apostrophes.

Reader: I married him, bad apostrophes and all. Our letters are in storage together; I read a few of mine to him. Wrong “who”s and terminal prepositions all over the goddamned page. He doesn’t hold it against me.

39 Comments

Filed under grammar, peeving and usage

39 responses to ““It’s,” Complicated: National Grammar Day and Apostrophe Abuse

  1. As usual, a rollicking ride through history – enjoyable, informative and persuasive.

  2. A new harmless drudgery post always makes my day. And this one has the added bonus that I think I get to correct Kory Stamper, correctly, on an actual matter of fact about words! I think I’m right about this: “until” is derived from “till”, not the other way ’round.

    • Kory Stamper

      You’re right–“until” is actually a Middle English creation, a compound of the prefix “un-“(which meant “up to”) and the earlier “till.” Though ’til is still reckoned to be a contraction of “until,” and anymore people use “till” or “until” or “til” (no apostrophe) instead.

      • You mean… you mean… you mean? Damn! I’ve long dismantled the GPS on this grammar and punctionatin’ handbasket. Thrown over the tiller too. Into the maelstrom of English hell! And I’ll danged well enjoy the ride til I get there! Anchors ahoyin’ ‘way!

      • Actually, it looks like it’s going the other way: till is on its way out and until is on the rise. ‘Til seems to be increasing in unedited text in my experience, but it’s barely a blip on Google Ngrams.

        • Kory Stamper

          Hmm, INNNNNNERESTING. I will have to do some diving through the corpora and see how _’til_ and _til_ measure up. You know, in my copious spare time.

          • The Telegraph style guide, appropriately for a newspaper that would fix in aspic a past that never existed, proscribes ’till’ entirely and demands ‘until’. This appears to be a niggle too far for its writers and subs, given that the word does manage to slip through fairly often.

    • I didn’t know that. Does that mean it really is okay to use the word without an apostrophe?

  3. Esavoa

    “I celebrate by using the singular “they” and ritually burning seven copies of Strunk & White–but one thing that is constant across all of nerddom is the worship of Almighty Grammar. Adherence to Grammar will save us: it will make us happy. It will get us the best job. It will increase our sexiness by 400%.”

    One thing is certain Ms. Stamper if we had not had William Bullokar, Robert Lowth et al. trying to codify the English language you wouldn’t be writing on its uselessness with your usual caustic disparagement of its rules.

    More significantly, we might not have been able to understand your constant mockery of those rules because your language might have been indecipherable. In fact without those rules and because of the proliferation of English dialects centuries’ ago, we might not have been able to communicate as easily as we are doing today.

    Linguist Henry Sweet predicted in the nineteenth century that the English, the Americans and the Australians would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages by 1980. Thanks in part to the efforts of Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth, this has not happened.
    Must you constantly mock the hand that has fed you into your profession?

    Let’s be honest, your descriptive position, and that of your linguistic comrades, isn’t about grammar as it is de facto about the fight against superiority, elitism and the constant denigration of the white males who were responsible for those rules.

    • Kory Stamper

      Oh Lord & butter, not this tired strawman again. I’m so bored with the descriptivist/prescriptivist “dichotomy” that I can’t even be bothered to point you to the many well-researched articles on the internet debunking it.

      • Esavoa

        Where’s the strawman? Those “well-researched articles” go either way, there’s no need to direct me, I’ve read the majority. By the way, the argument works both ways. Just as you’re bored with Grammar day, and those tedious grammar rules, there are a few who are tired of the constant picking apart of those rules.

        Your message has been articulated clearly, by you and everyone else. Where is it supposed to lead?

        • mikepope

          Here’s your strawman: that the only two possibilities are a written language rigorously policed by a priesthood of scolds, or undecipherable gibberish. That the only thing that has prevented a 1300-year-old language from becoming as like the grunting of swine is the bastion of prescriptivist grammar. That a language that has managed to infiltrate the world on the backs of everyday people who colonized it to the ends of the world, that’s creolized into a five hundred dialects, that is the currency of everything from the Nobel committee to online anime forums, was able to achieve this only because of Lowth and his spiritual heirs.

          Or more to the point: that English’s survival depends on the likes of Strunk & White. Bah.

          • Esavoa

            Those “priesthood of scolds” facilitated your being able to write your tautological diatribe. Ironic isn’t it?

            • mikepope

              Like every native speaker, I learned English from my peers.

              What’s tautological about my “diatribe”?

            • C Baker

              No, Esavoa, they didn’t. Any argument which hinges on that point is flawed on the very face of it – and persisting with that argument in a reply to somebody who just finished debunking it is just sad.

        • davidly

          The strawman is the idea that descriptivists are per se anti-prescriptivist when they are simply cataloging usage. Also, you might want to consider whether your projecting caustic for playful. I read the latter.

      • Kory Stamper

        A COMMENTING REMINDER TO ALL:

        1. Disagreement is fine, but must be respectful.
        2. Continued disagreement (particularly without any fruitful engagement or new ideas offered) will be considered trolling, which is a pointless waste of everyone’s time.
        3. My site, my rules, my banhammer.

  4. Roo Bookaroo

    So, about this article, what’ s its conclusion? Is it “its” conclusion, or “it’s” conclusion? Do you have a preference or do your endorse both for the sake of so-called descriptivism?
    When the possessive “it’s” is perceived by my brain, it can now reacts in two modes. The first one, which has been until now my immediate perception and emotional response, (the level of what Daniel Kahneman in his big book on empirical psychology, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls “System 1”, the mode of immediate reaction of the brain), in which I instinctively say “its” and feels a spontaneous aversion when confronted with “it’s”.
    However, after having read your learned historical dissertation about the adventures of the apostrophe, I, that is now switching to the level of my conscious brain, am obliged to store this new info in my memory, and consciously make use of it. That is, I am switching to System 2 (slow thinking) in which I have to take into account the new info from your article stored in memory and determine how reasoning — that is I again, but now operating at the level of slow thinking — is using that new info, and whether it’s going to affect my initial spontaneous aversion that I felt in my mode of fast, immediate, unreasoned, thinking.
    Should I now, having become learned thanks to you, reject my initial habit of spontaneous aversion of the possessive “it’s”, and instead of branding unknown writers as “idiots” or “uneducated”, train my emotional brain to accept the new “it’s” version by overruling and overcoming my initial emotional rejection?
    My system 2 introduces rationality, discussion, gives credit and full weight to your erudition, and strives to train my system 1 of immediate reaction into a new emotional reaction of ACCEPTANCE?
    Well — showing the powerful hold that System 1 still has on the brain — in spite of new knowledge accumulated in memory, I still hesitate to do that, which is evidence that, even after having stored in memory your article’s info, my brain still remains attached to its former spontaneous habit of rejection of “it’s”, and has not yet accepted to truly integrate the new info delivered by you in this brain’s global emotional framework to become tolerant of “it’s”.

    • Kory Stamper

      Coupla things:
      1. Descriptivism–even the so-called type–doesn’t mean “do whatever the hell you want.” It means “this is how this word/phrase/piece of punctuation is used.”
      2. The modern rule for “its” and “it’s” is to use the apostrophe when “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”

  5. Henry Hocherman

    M’am. You just told us it is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” G’valt. I cannot for the life of me understand why Zeus rates an extra ‘S’ and Odysseus doesn’t. Is it that in Latin Zeus is Jupiter so there is no escaping the second ‘S’ by using the translation dodge, but Odysseus is Ulysses to the Romans? Or is it that Odysseus has already used three precious S’s which, in the days before the Linotype might have been one too many? Am I missing something? Is there a rule here?

    • Kory Stamper

      The best I can figure–and this is just a guess–is that “Zeus” is one syllable while “Odysseus” is three. Otherwise, I got nothin’.

      • The way it was taught to me — back when Webster III was still new — was that when a name ended in two consecutive sibilants, the possessive was formed by adding only an apostrophe. We were thus taught to write, e.g., “Moses’ law” but “Socrates’s philosophy.”

  6. A young teacher from far-off Bombay,
    Turned down a request for a lay
    Nicely couched in a note,
    Since the fellow who wrote
    Had spelled “intercoarse” with an “a.”
         —Isaac Asimov

  7. Shmuel

    Gadzooks! You left out the apostrophe in “‘zbud.”

  8. The last paragraph and the whole scene seems picture perfect. Keep aside these tiny bad apostrophes, it’s life we’re talking about🙂

    Really an interesting & informative post. Thanks a lot for laying out our small grammatical mistakes in open. I would be more careful next time (only for achieve that 400%)🙂

  9. Justin T. Sampson

    I grew up in a city called Scotts Valley, named after a fellow named Hiram Scott who purchased the whole valley in 1850. But upon incorporation, place names in America drop the apostrophe — because it is no longer Mr. Scott’s own private valley, it is a place that just happens to be pronounced Scotts Valley!

    Here’s the official policy from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names:

    Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry’s Fork). The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists. Thus, we write “Jamestown” instead of “James’town” or even “Richardsons Creek” instead of “Richard’s son’s creek.” The whole name can be made possessive or associative with an apostrophe at the end as in “Rogers Point’s rocky shore.” Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow). — http://geonames.usgs.gov/docs/pro_pol_pro.pdf (2nd paragraph of Chapter 5)

  10. This is the most romantic text I’ve read in ages. Thank you. Where’s the heart emoticon when you need it?

  11. Richard Bell

    A small point: It’s not ‘swounds or ‘zbud or ’tis. It’s ’swounds, ’zbud, ’tis. I know it’s the keyboard’s fault. It automatically turns an initial apostrophe into an opening single quotation mark. Type option shift } (closing brace) to get an initial apostrophe.

  12. Y

    Kory, if I may ask, did you use words like ‘tittle’ and ‘gank’ and ‘pitching woo’ before you dove into the word wallow that is your current job?
    (I don’t normally write things like ‘word wallow’, myself.)

    • Kory Stamper

      To be frank, I’ve been doing this job for so long that I can barely remember what exact words I used AM (ante Merriam). I can say that I have always loved odd words, though I run across more of them now than I did previously.

  13. Sarah Miciek

    I admit I don’t have strong feelings about apostrophes, but I’m a sucker for a good love story. That was perfect.

  14. Kory, you’ve been a big influence on my leaving the ranks of Grammar Nazism. I, too, used to be quite pedantic and liberally offered unsolicited corrections to anyone who wouldn’t run away plugging their ears. Over the years, you’ve brought things into focus for me and made the fluid nature of language very clear. Now I only offer such corrections to my own children when they’ve committed an undisputed, flagrant offense. Don’t get me wrong — I still get the urge to lay some schooling down when a Facebook friend doesn’t seem to know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” but it melts away pretty quickly these days when I put it into perspective. Thanks.🙂

  15. I enjoy all your posts, Kory, and this one was another great read. I do have a respectful question, though, on the use of “those fine-grain shibboleths of usage that no one can quite get right” … I would use “fine-grained.” Would you consider that a matter of rule or preference?

  16. Dan Blum

    A bit late to the party here, but I wanted to mention what I believe is the extreme form of using apostrophes to indicate elided letters, which is the use of TWO apostrophes to show multiple elisions. Charles Dodgson did this – he wrote “ca’n’t” and “wo’n’t” and possibly other things I have expunged from my brain. I don’t know how common it was.

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