Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Assault on apostrophes

It may be only a little piece 0f punctuation, but it means a lot

I have just heard of an alarming development in the world of those of us who care about grammar, punctuation, and the correct application of such concepts.

The city of Birmingham, England, has declared a ban on the use of possessive apostrophes on municipal street signs. Rather than try to use the punctuation mark correctly, the city council has decided just not to use it at all.

First, let's have a quick review of how apostrophes are to be used. They are used in contractions, when letters have been left out of a word or words, often when words have been run together. For example, the phrase do not can be contracted into don't, in which the missing o is replaced by an apostrophe.

The other major use of apostrophes is in forming possessives, and apparently it's that usage that has led the city fathers of Birmingham to give up. I will admit that some grammar textbooks make this construction unnecessarily complicated. For all practical purposes, there is only one rule that suffices when forming a possessive: Does the word being made into a possessive end in s? If it does not end in s, you add 's; if it does end in s, you just add '. That's all you need to know.

Some grammar handbooks will add more complications, such as whether it's the proper name of somebody and whether it's singular but the pronunciation doesn't change, or whether it's the name of somebody famous like Jesus or Moses, but that's all just making things more complicated than they need to be. If you just follow the rule of s vs. no s, you'll be all right. My suspicion is that the Birmingham town council has been confused by all of those way-too-complicated rules and just gave up.

Now, there are some important rules for when NOT to use apostrophes as well. Apostrophes should never, ever be used for plurals or for the -s form of verbs. It's two horses, not two horse's. And apostrophes aren't to be used for possessive pronouns, to avoid confusion with contractions. If it can be spelled out, it's a contraction and uses an apostrophe, but if it can't be spelled out, it's not a contraction and therefore doesn't use an apostrophe. You can't say "The kitten chased it is tail," so you know you have to use its without the apostrophe.

Back some years ago when I worked at the sports desk of a major newspaper, some of the reporters there had difficulty with such constructions as girls' basketball, so the decision was made to do away with the apostrophe. I could make a justification for that decision on the basis that the construction was not a possessive; it was a noun used as an adjective. Thus the apostrophe wasn't needed.

However, for consistency's sake, that meant that when covering the university basketball teams, we should also have used not the possessive, but the noun used as an adjective, women basketball and men basketball. That didn't fly. To this day, the newspaper uses possessives for university sports but nouns as adjectives for high school. I would argue that such a double standard short-changes high-school athletes, who deserve possessives just as much as college athletes do.

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