The Battle[']s Joined

ApostropheLiving, as I do, near Bishops Corner, not far from Corbins Corner, in easy reach of a Walgreens and a Marshalls, not to mention Lyons Gulf service station, I wasn[’]t completely surprised to learn that the United States Board on Geographic Names has clamped down on the efforts of citizens in Thurman, N.Y., to name a nearby mountain Jimmy’s Peak. They[’]ve been removing (in what, misheard, might sound like a different form of mutilation) “the genitive apostrophe and the ‘s’” since 1890, after all, though “the Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy.”

I was surprised, however, to discover that there are warring groups devoted on the one hand to the apostrophe, genitive or otherwise, and on the other to its defeat. Of course, the apostrophe hasn[’]t been around all that long—only since the 16th or 17th century, depending on its usage—but unless we[’]ve all run out of other things to argue about, one wonders why sticklers[’] debates over this superscript-comma thing has become an obsession of late. There[’]s the Apostrophe Protection Society (and its German cousin, the much more impressive sounding ApostrophenKatastrophen), which seek to curb “apostrophe abuse,” including, presumably, apostrophe murder. On the other side of the jousting field gather the fans of Kill the Apostrophe, contending that “wed be better off without it.”

I[’]m all for being better off. And given that those who bemoan apostrophe misuse spend as much time moaning about extra or misplaced marks (Banana’s for sale, its’ a shame, Welcome to the Smith’s) as about missing ones, perhaps eliminating the little buggers is the best solution. There would, of course, be moments of ambiguity. With the local Gulf Station, I[’]m always forgetting whether the owner[’]s name is Jack Lyon or Jack Lyons. Examples on the Web abound. How would you distinguish between my brother’s wives and my brothers’ wives ? Between The military claims we’re wrong and The military claims were wrong ? Context, of course—a slippery notion, not particularly well suited to an argument against a little mark that might clear things up.

Given the near-elimination of the apostrophe in that ubiquitous writing medium, the text message, as well as its inconvenience for Web site addresses, we[’]ve little control over what will happen to any apostrophes or lack thereof except in our own and our students[’] work. Rather than lining up with one team or another, I[’]ll jot down two thoughts that the debate provokes and that, as thought experiments, interest me more than the rights or wrongs of apostrophe enforcement, abuse, or murder.

—The apostrophe of contraction is a different kettle o[’] fish from the genitive. Except for colloquialisms like shoulda, gimme, and outta, the apostrophe in a contraction actually stands in place of a letter or two. Granted, we have dropped some of these—sha’n’t has become shan’t. But very few people argue about where to place such a mark. The exception is let[’]s, and I suspect that[’]s for two reasons. First, we have almost no other contractions in which the letter before the final s is being replaced. Second, outside poetry, how many people say or hear the phrase Let us, and how many could explain what it means?

—The notion that the genitive denotes possession may be part of what lies beneath the furor over place-name apostrophes. Eighteenth-century grammarians apparently started using the word possessive rather than the word genitive, which may have led to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names[’][s] speculating on its own policy, “The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, ‘ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.’” In other words, just because you, Mr. Smith, own the property on which that pond is located doesn[’]t mean you get to start calling it Smith’s Pond rather than Bullfrog Pond; and inversely, that a certain famous Peak is called Pike[’]s doesn[’]t mean it belongs to Pike. But the genitive, as many have observed, denotes many relationships other than possession. So perhaps, in some less fractious future, we’ll reserve the apostrophe for the genitive that does indicate possession (Lucy’s chocolates, and get your mitts off  ‘em) and let it go for the rest.

How any of this will solve the impasse for the folks wrangling over whether they[’]ll be allowed to place an apostrophe in Jimmy[’]s Peak, I don[’]t know. But that[’]s just it. Apostrophes[’] ability to stir up dissent won[’]t go away [’]til we all get in line and decide to play by the same playbook. And that[’]ll ne[’]er happen.

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