Hands up! It's the Apostrophe Police
Last updated 2/9/2022 at 4:52pm | View PDF
I consider myself an enforcer of the oft-neglected and seriously misunderstood apostrophe. After 15 years of teaching in college, I can tell you for sure its days are numbered.
Few students can write beyond texting and that, of course, is a language all its own. The little old apostrophe just gets no respect. My students consider its placement to be strictly optional and a serious impediment to their creativity. "A little dot with a tail. What's the big deal, huh, professor?"
Well, the big deal is that the apostrophe makes written communication clearer and more exact. It has taken hundreds of years of trial and error for the English language to reach this point of grammatical consensus and the apostrophe has been right there, doing its part.
The apostrophe is necessary in two major ways. First, to denote a conjunctive, as I have done in the title of this piece – "it's" in place of "it is." To eliminate the apostrophe, would change the meaning from "It is" to the possessive.
Speaking of the possessive, that is where most of the confusion exists. Why? Because the apostrophe moves around a lot. If used in the singular, the apostrophe comes before an "s." When used in the plural, it comes after the "s." Example: Bill's book versus kids' haircuts. Except – get this – in the very example I used in the above paragraph! "Its" when used as a possessive does not have an apostrophe at all! Come on, apostrophe, make up your mind!
Then, it goes from confusing to lunacy. For example if a singular noun ends with "s," it needs another "s" with the apostrophe in front of the second "s" to denote the singular possessive. Example: The bus's lights went out. Same with a proper name – Reeves's Superman. Okay, simple enough.
But, oh no, not when it comes to apostrophes.
If you're writing for a newspaper, like I am, AP Style calls for no additional "s," just the apostrophe.
And in the bus example, if it were plural buses, no additional "s" is required and the apostrophe would come after the last "s." The buses' lights went out. What's a "texter" to do?
Well, l will tell you what most of my students do - forget the whole thing. Since they cannot decide where apostrophes go, they don't use them at all. "Hey, professor, that way we're not really wrong, just undecided."
And it is not just students. It is businesses, too. In my above example: kids' haircuts, the actual sign read: kids haircuts. I was going to add the apostrophe, but grammatical terrorism carries stiff sentences.
The poor, doomed apostrophe. The more it is ignored, the more it will be ignored. The day will come when apostrophes go the way of the dinosaurs.
Or is it dinosaurs'? Or maybe dinosaur's?
Thank god for texting.
- Bill Barre of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected].