LANGUAGE – the Apostrophe

Why this wanton neglect and even abuse of the humble apostrophe by so many people?

First, why can’t people get the distinction between its and it’s right?  Is it really that difficult?  Think of it this way: it’s is longer (by one character, the apostrophe) than its and being longer is more powerful.  And what is more powerful than a verb?  Surely not a mere pronominal possessive! Ergo, it’s is short for the verb [it] is and its is the possessive.

It’s its own reward!

And while hot and heavy we’re at the use of apostrophes in verbal phrases, why confuse their and they’re?  Kind of a plural parallel to its and it’s, if you see what I mean!  And what in heaven’s name are we to do with there?  These three homophones (their, they’re, there) are heterographs and most certainly heterosemes – how about that!

Next, some thoughts about the apostrophe as a possessive marker. Take a nice little noun like car, for example, and consider its protean shapes:

car     cars    car’s   cars’

The car runs smoothly.
The cars run smoothly.
The car’s motor runs smoothly.
The cars’ motors run smoothly.


We could say that for regular nouns in modern English the sequence (beginning with a ‘zero realization’ – that is, no overt marker) Ø –‘s –s –s’  is functionally the equivalent of morphological ‘number/case’ markers for singular non-possessive (Ø ), singular possessive (–‘s), plural non-possessive (–s )  and plural possessive (-s’ ).  Given any X  (e.g., car), X plus apostrophe plus s  (e.g., car’s) is the possessive singular and X  plus s plus apostrophe (e.g., cars’ ) is the possessive plural: X’s Y is the Y of X, and Xs’  Y is the Y of Xs.

Got it?

And a letter sent to the Smith family should be addressed how?

To the Smiths/Smith’s/Smiths’ or what?  Think about it.  Any notion of possession here?  Of course not – just plural.  The correct answer is the simple Smiths (unless, hyper-clever, one posits an elliptical Smiths’ [house, v. sim.] – but that’s a stretch)!

Be kind to the apostrophe – what did it ever do to you to merit being slapped around like that and suffering such grievous abuse?

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2 Responses to LANGUAGE – the Apostrophe

  1. Pingback: The Oxford Comma | laohutiger

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