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“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.


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage