Where have all the apostrophes gone? Blown away through lack of use or misuse? Victims of their own etymology – apo ‘from’ and strephein, ‘turn away’?
Whatever the reasons for the apostrophe’s fading presence, modern usage appears to be resolutely turning away the high flying little period with a tail. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find any background for the mark itself so I’ve made up my own myth for the apostrophe’s appearance.
Once upon a time there were no apostrophes at all. There was in use, however, a closely related mark of the same shape. The old familiar comma was helping readers understand more easily the groups of words strung together to form sentences.
Now the comma, as we all know, is a lowly little creature, always stuck down there along the line at the base of any words it’s working with. Language, as is more than evident today, is a developing and evolving form. So one day, this certain little comma saw an opportunity for making things even easier for his readers.
Being not a little fed up with seeing only the legs and bodies of the letters he worked with, he girded his round little self, hugged his tail close, and took an entrepreneurial leap to the top of the heap. Here above all the letters’ heads he found a new world-view, and set about creating an indispensable job description for himself. Calling himself “apostrophe”, and under the guise of providing a much needed service, he set about confusing forevermore those writers lacking a sense of punctuation.
Apostrophe’s first priority was to sort out who owned what. He was quickly accepted as the authority on possession, hanging out between the possessor’s name and the following “s” that denoted ownership, as in “my left foot’s little toe’s toe ring”. Who could now doubt that we’re talking about the toe belonging to the left foot and the ring to the little toe, rather than multiple left feet and little toes? Comma-turned-apostrophe was on his way to clearing up ambiguity.
When it came to plural ownership, apostrophe appointed a committee to decide how to handle the possibility of multiple “s’s”. The conclusion most universally accepted was to simply let apostrophe take all the credit for this job and pink slip the “s”. Thus began confusion on the part of writers about just where to call for apostrophe’s services, and whether or not to call in his associate “s” as well. For example, “My two dogs’ fleas are attacking the cat.” It would be overkill, not to mention awkward, to employ apostrophe and his “s”, as in “My two dogs’s fleas …
There are those, however, who would dispense with apostrophe’s services altogether — look around and you’ll find examples in some of the most obvious places. “Artists studios” is one that has struck a few people between the eyes recently. Here’s the test: in the above example, where should apostrophe be doing his job? Lots of “s’s” to choose from.
Sometimes that’s exactly what happens; people know about apostrophe, know he has a place in concise writing, but are not quite sure when to call on him. To be safe, they ask him in to do unnecessary jobs, asking him to put himself into embarrassing situations. How about, “The cordless phone regularly goes missing from it’s base because its too much trouble to put it back in it’s proper place.”? Where should apostrophe be working and where should he be on his coffee break?
A couple of apostrophe’s most cherished positions, marking the place of missing letters in our hurried vocal contractions, are fast being phased out. How would you fill the blanks here? 1. “______ mother called to ask whether ______ going to do the dishes before she comes home from her month in the South Seas.” (your, you’re) 2. “Since _____ leaving soon ourselves, we ____ unable to give her a definitive answer.” (we’re, were)
There’s no end to the jobs apostrophe can properly do, but one he neglected I shall never forget. There I was at YVR, my reservations made for a long-awaited tour of Newfoundland. I had just checked my luggage and the smiling man behind the counter said, “There you are ma’am, your bag is on its way to St. John.”
And that’s exactly where my ticket said I was going!