The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is the roadkill of language. Glance anywhere from the streets and sidewalks of America and you see (sometimes nearly smell) the slaughter: womens’ clothing (women is always plural, so you never add an s and put the apostrophe at the end), or, as in the sign outside the window I am looking through, homemade pie’s. Homemade pie’s what, you might ask? Its (not it’s) cherries? Its crust? But this apostrophe misuse is so ubiquitous that I suspect most of us are either too numb or too confused to even bother noticing.

There is really only one rule to apostrophe use, but, unfortunately, the rule’sĀ usefulnessĀ has been lost to history. The apostrophe represents a missing letter or missing letters. Thus cannot becomes can’t, she has becomes she’s.

But here is what has been lost to history: English, back in the day, represented possession with an “e” in the suffix, not just an “s.” Sam’s screaming solo would have been written Sames (or, more likely, Sammes) screaming solo. We would have Markes breathing rhythm, Anthonyes anger management seminar, Mattes plush lawn, or Jennes perplexed look.

But we don’t. We rid ourselves of that “e” because we are a hasty and lazy people who have, evidence suggests, failed to adjust to the consequences.

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2 comments

  1. Tahani Nelson

    Hi, Professor. I know this is an old post but I was showing it to a student and it reminded me of a question. I understand that the apostrophe has replaced the no-longer-considered-appropriate-or-grammatically-correct-e (I didn’t believe you at first, so I looked it up. Interesting). However, when discussing apostrophes that show possession, is it fair to say that possessive *nouns* have an apostrophe but possessive *pronouns* do not? I feel like I should be able to come up with an example that disproves that, but I can’t. Thought you might know.

    • thewritingprofessor

      Hi Tahani,

      It’s great to hear from you. I hope your new job is going well.

      I think you are right about the noun/pronoun apostrophe usage. I’m not sure of the history here, but I will consult some sources and get back to this.

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