The Case Against Apostrophe S

Apostrophe SLast Christmas, my younger sister, Kim, came to visit us. And we got into a big argument. I will admit: I enjoy annoying my sister. She’s like me in the sense of having strong opinions about minor things. But she has never quite figured out how to exploit my weakness. Or maybe it is just because she is a better person than I am. Regardless, our argument was about how to make names that end in the letter “s” possessive.

We agree about the case of a normal noun. For example, “The lilacs’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” It is wrong to put an extra “s” at the end of that “lilacs’.” But Kim doesn’t like sentences like this, “Claudius’ stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Kim thinks it should be, “Claudius’s stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Our argument went on for days.

Kim thinks of this as a matter of phonetics. In that sentence, one would say, “Claudiuses stutter…” not “Claudius stutter…” Now on this point, she is mostly correct. But not entirely. The truth is that the second pronunciation is becoming more common. So I think that the language is moving in my direction — toward simplification. But she is right that the vast majority of people add the “es” when they say it. Therefore, she argues, in writing, we should add the “apostrophe s.”

(In point of fact, Kim did not argue this. I had to infer that this was her argument. She seems to take it as a given that I am just being difficult and that her case is self-evident. My first wife — also a very bright woman — did the same thing to me. I hate this. I may be bright, but that doesn’t mean that any given thing will be self-evident to me. I can be brilliantly perspective about one thing and totally clueless about the next.)

My argument is very simple: speaking is speaking; writing is writing; let’s make things as simple as possible. I don’t care if we all decide to put “apostrophe s” at the end of all possessives that end with “s.” I just don’t want to think about. I like clear and simple rules. And the state of grammar is now this:

For normal nouns, do not add “apostrophe s.” For names, you can either add “apostrophe s” or not add it, it is up to the writer and whatever style guide is oppressing her.

Thus, I can live my life with two rules. Or I can live my life with one rule. I choose one.

But let me show you the madness that takes place in Kim’s grammar world. Consider the sentence, “The grass’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” In this case, almost everyone would say, “The grasses color…” So should we write this as, “The grass’s color…”? If we go with Kim’s rule, we really should. But then, we have to analyze every possessive noun that ends in “s” to determine how it sounds. And that is a terrible burden.

Let me admit that Kim’s system is a good and reasonable one. It actually makes more sense than mine. But it is too much work. And if we really want a language that makes sense, we had better start speaking Esperanto. Or rather: ni prefere komencu paroli Esperanton!

10 thoughts on “The Case Against Apostrophe S

  1. It’s very clear in my head what needs to be done, and it’s very simple. It is not a case of “normal nouns” (what are technically called common nouns) versus names or proper nouns. It’s a case of singular versus plural.

    If was are speaking of one lilac, we write lilac’s, as in the lilac’s color. If we are speaking of multiple lilacs, we write lilacs’, as in “the lilacs’ color,” which you used in your example. So, singular gets ‘s, and plural just has the apostrophe added to the end.

    When we consider names, if we think about the fact that Claudius is singular, one person, in the same way grass is singular (blanket of grass). We add ‘s to grass, so we add ‘s to Claudius.

    I think it’s actually easier to think of singular, add ‘s, and plural, add ‘, than to use the language the way you do. It doesn’t really matter, though. Obviously we are in a period of transition. I will try to go with the flow.

    • Are we also in a period of transition to the past tense of ‘lead’ being spelled ‘lead?’ That seems to be the majority consensus, at least 10 to 1, including among educated writers. Going with the flow would certainly be easier than trying to “reign in” such a strong consensus.

      • Is that true? I think that’s madness. We should go in the opposite directly and spell the metal “led” or at least “plumbum.”

    • I will have to think about that. I have a feeling it is going to get complicated fast. Consider “grass.” So the singular form would be “grass’s” but the plural form would be “grasses’.” I don’t know. I will have to think about it for a few months and see what I think. But it does have the problem that the current grammar “rule” has only to do with names.

      • Yes, though I don’t know how often you would use grasses as a possessive. How often do we use the plural of grass?

        • Certainly I don’t use it much. But I’m sure that certain scientists do. It doesn’t really matter, though. That was just what occurred to me. I’m sure there are academics who have dealt with this issue in depth. It’s that kind of issue. I would definitely read a book on the subject. Have you read, Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean? It’s great fun. On the issue at hand, I’m just going to stick with my way of doing it, because it is more important to me to make my life easy than to be right. But I think there is much to your argument, which is why I wrote this. Until we had discussed this, I never understood why there was that exception for names. But in conversation, I don’t think anyone would balk at “grasseses.”

  2. As a part of our cable TV subscription we get some music channels, and these channels share trivia about the artists that are playing. One of the little blips didn’t say “George’s influences include,” it said “George influences include.” It was like the person writing the trivia blip couldn’t figure out how to do the possessive, so they just gave up.

    It doesn’t bother me when people know the rules and choose a specific option. It does bother me when people don’t know the rules, and they don’t feel like learning them, so they just make a guess. This, I believe, is how language tends to transform more often than people simply wanting to simplify, and this is irksome to me.

    Do you feel this is how language most often changes?

    • To some extent. Sometimes it is disconcerting to look at the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, because a lot of those professional writers seem clueless. Just the same, writing is about conveying ideas, so I guess it is asking too much for all writers to be grammar nuts (even though most are). I think that usage changes in a lot of ways. Writers change the way people speak and vise versa. And sometimes, people just give up. For decades, I’ve been trying to hold the line on data as plural, but I think I’ve given up.

      As for people knowing and not caring, check out Fowler’s discussion of the split infinitive. I always enjoy reading Fowler.

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