Monday, 11 January 2016

The Troublesome Apostrophe? Part I

The genesis of this article lies in Nick Edwards’ thread in ELT Resources and Victor Romain’s in Professional English Teachers Network.

This article is in three parts. Part 1 deals with the origin and uses of the apostrophe. Part II takes a look at arguments for and against the use of the apostrophe. And Part III contains my conclusion.

I Its origin
Historical development
The apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16th century in imitation of French practice.

French practice
Introduced by Geoffroy Tory (1529),[5] the apostrophe was used in place of a vowel letter to indicate elision (as in l’heure in place of la heure). It was frequently used in place of a final e (which was still pronounced at the time) when it was elided before a vowel, as in un’ heure. Modern French orthography has restored the spelling une heure.[6]

Early English practice
From the 16th century, following French practice, the apostrophe was used when a vowel letter was omitted either because of incidentalelision (I’m for I am) or because the letter no longer represented a sound (lov’d for loved). English spelling retained many inflections that were not pronounced as syllables, notably verb endings (-est, -eth, -es, -ed) and the noun ending -es, which marked either plurals or possessives (also known as genitives; see Possessive apostrophe, below). So apostrophe followed by s was often used to mark a plural, especially when the noun was a loan word (and especially a word ending in a, as in the two comma’s).[4]

The use of elision has continued to the present day, but significant changes have been made to the possessive and plural uses. By the 18th century, apostrophe + s was regularly used for all possessive singular forms, even when the letter e was not omitted (as in the gate’s height). This was regarded as representing the Old English genitive singular inflection -es. The plural use was greatly reduced, but a need was felt to mark possessive plural. The solution was to use an apostrophe after the plural s (as in girls’ dresses). However, this was not universally accepted until the mid-19th century.[4]

Uses of the apostrophe
H. Ransey Fowler’s The Little, Brown Handbook
1. Use the apostrophe to indicate the possessive case for nouns and indefinite pronouns.
A. Add –’s to form the possessive case of singular or plural nouns or indefinite pronouns
    not ending in –s.
    The cat’s paw was mangled.
    The children’s parents performed Snow White.
    Laura felt she was no one’s friend.
10 rules for using the apostrophe
    • a child’s wants
    • the men’s concerns
    • the people’s choice
    • everyone’s answer 

B. Add –’s to form the possessive case of singular words ending in –s, unless another –s
    makes pronunciation difficult.
    Henry James’s novels reward the patient reader.
    Doris’s paper was read aloud in our English class.
    For goodness’ sake, don’t holler.
    Jesus’ moral principles guide the behaviour of people even today.
10 rules for using the apostrophe
• Allison Jones’ article (one person named Jones)
• The Joneses’ article (two or more people named Jones) 

If a proper noun or name ends in a silent s, z, or x, add an ’s 
• Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast” 
If the family's last name ends in "s," make it plural before adding an apostrophe. For instance, if you wanted to discuss the Williams family, they would become "the Williamses" in a plural sense. If you wanted to reference their dog, you'd say "the Williamses' dog." If the last name seems awkward to say that way, sidestep the issue by saying "the Williams family" and "the Williams family's dog."
If you're listing who owns an object, know where to put the apostrophe. For instance, if both John and Mary own a cat, you would write "John and Mary's cat" — not "John's and Mary's cat." "John and Mary" is a cohesive noun phrase, and therefore only needs one apostrophe.

C. Add only an apostrophe to form the possessive case of plural words ending in –s.
    The workers’ association called a strike.
    The Murphys’ car was stolen.

D. Add –‘s only to the last word to form the possessive case of compound nouns or word
    My father-in-law’s birthday was yesterday.
    The council president’s address was a bore.
   Go bang on somebody else’s door.

E. When two or more words show individual possession, add –‘s to both. Add –‘s to only the
    last word if they show  joint possession.
    Individual possession
    Harry’s and Garry’s dentists use laughing gas.
    The committee’s and the lawyer’s reports contained obvious contradictions.
    Joint possession
    Merril, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith’s stock market report is encouraging.
    The living room is an example of John and Martha’s bad taste.

2. Use the apostrophe to indicate the omission of one ore more letters, numbers, or words in
    standard contractions.
    it’s                                   it is
    who’s                              who is
    they’re                             they are
    class of ’79                     class of 1979
    o’ clock                           of the clock
    ma’am                             madam

3. Use the apostrophe plus –s to for the plurals of letters, numbers, and words named as
    The sentence has too many but’s
    At the end of each chapter the author had written two 3’s.
    Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s or your readers may not be able to distinguish
    them from e’s and l’s.
    (Notice that the letters, numbers and words are italicised (underlined in typed or
      handwritten copy) but the apostrophe and the –s are not.
10 rules for using the apostrophe
Use ’s to indicate the plural of letters, signs, or symbols when s alone would be confusing. 
• Please spell out all the &’s.
• She got eight A’s and two B’s on her last report card.
Why are there so many i's in the word "indivisibility"? is correct, depending on who you ask. This is simply for clarity reasons, so the reader does not mistake it for the word "is." However, in modern usage, the preference is to avoid inserting an apostrophe and instead surround the single letter in quotation marks before pluralizing it: Why are there so many "i"s in the word "indivisibility"?

Avoid the problem altogether with small numbers by spelling out the word: "ones" instead of "1's," "fours" instead of "4's" or "nines" instead of "9's." Only spell out words of numerals that are ten or lower.

4. Don’t use the apostrophe in forming the possessive case of personal pronouns.
     His, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs and whose are the possessive forms; they don’t need the
     Don’t confuse the personal pronouns of its, theirs and whose with the contractions it’s ( it
      is), they’re (they are) and who’s (who is).
10 rules for using the apostrophe
1. When a word ends in an apostrophe, no period or comma should be placed between the word     
    and the apostrophe. 
   • The last book on the shelf was the Smiths’. 
2.  Do not use an apostrophe to indicate the plural of a name, an all-capital abbreviation, or
    • Veterans Affairs
    • musicians union 
    • ECGs
   • WBCs
   • a woman in her 40s
   • during the late 1990s (1990’s—no, no, no, a thousand times no.) 
But Fowler says:
Exception: References to the years in a decade are not italicised and often omit the apostrophe. Thus 1960’s and 1960s are both acceptable. 
Another mistake to avoid is using people's names in contractions. For example, if you use "Bob's" as a contraction of "Bob is," then that's not correct. "Bob's" is supposed to be a possessive, not a contraction. It's okay to use pronouns in contractions such as "he's" or "she's."

We do use the apostrophe with ‘s’ even when no possession is possible.
Ownership with certain proper nouns can be tricky. "Sunday's football game" is not technically correct (because Sunday is incapable of ownership) but it's perfectly acceptable to say and write. "A hard day's work" is likewise perfectly correct, even though the day is incapable of ownership.

Questions and Answers
What about when it comes to I? How would you say: Reese's and I's conversation? Because that doesn't sound right at all.
"Reese's and my conversation" is correct, but sounds awkward. To sound more natural, you could say "my conversation with Reese".

Is there an apostrophe in "admissions committee"?
There is no apostrophe. Admissions is just part of the title describing the committee.

Do you put an apostrophe after last names on a plaque? Is it The Millers, The Millers', or The Miller's?
No apostophe needed: The Millers, The Miller Family, or The Miller Home are all good options. The Millers' Home is technically correct as well. If your last name ends in S, Z, or CH, add an "es" at the end instead of an s: The Martinezes.