An Aside on the Apostrophe

[From Bill Powers (2003.03.16.0421 MST)]

I have noted a certain confusion on the net concerning the use of the
apostrophe. While I am sure there are things I don't know about this pesky
little jot, there are some usages that are considered correct coding that
it doesn't hurt to know about. If you care about conventions, here is a
semi-conmplete guide. At 0430 I have nothing better than this to do.

The two main usages are: to indicate omitted letters, and to indicate
belonging or possession.

Notice a conspicuously absent usage: to indicate the plural. The apostrophe
is _never_ used to indicate the plurals of words. Plural's of word's, BAD.
Plurals of words, GOOD.

The only possible exception to the rule against using apostrophies for
plurals: rows of a's and i's, or 1's and 2's. The apostrophe is used just
for visual separation, and to avoid confusion: are there as many as as is
in this sequence of a's and i's?

The apostrophe is used to indicate omitted letters or contractions. Don't,
won't, shouldn't, can't, wasn't, it's (as in "it is"), who's (as in "who is").

The apostrophe is used with "s" to indicate possesion. John's car. The
family's dog. Note that if the s is not final, there is no apostrophe:
whose dog is this?

Note the possibilities for confusion. The family's dog, and the family's
gone. The first indicates that the dog belongs to the family, the second
indicates the omission of a letter: the family is gone. You have to figure
it out from context.

Another major exception: the dog likes its bowl because it's full. The
first "its" is a possessive, but there is no apostrophe; the apostrophe
with "it" is used strictly to indicate a contraction for "it is". Never the
possessive. As far as I know, that's the only time the apostrophe is
omitted where it would be otherwise correct as a possessive.

Finally, possessive plurals. The families' dogs means the dogs belonging to
multiple families; the possessive apostrophe added after an "s" does not
require another "s": we do not write "the families's dogs" or the
Powerses's dogs. The families' dogs and the Powerses' dogs will do.

The plural of words ending in s is indicated by an added "es". Powers,
Powerses. Jones, Joneses. Press, presses. The possessive tacks an
apostrophe onto the end of the added "es".

An apostrophe is NEVER added before a final s just because it's a final s,
as in a word like runs in "he runs".

That take's care of it, I think.


Bill P.

[From Mike Acree (2003.03.13.1333 PST)]

Bill Powers (2003.03.16.0421 MST)--

Lots apostrophe police lurking out here.

My favorite peeve has to do with reversing the contraction. Despite the fact that "had be," like "scrod," is a mythical tense, many writers fancy themselves careful in unpacking constructions like "You'd better be careful" to "You had better be careful" rather than to "You would better be careful." (Same with the adverb "rather.") I've seen this mistake not only on the CSGNet, but in Newsweek and The New Yorker, and even one grammar book. This is of course just how language changes, as grammarians and lexicographers track popular usage. I wonder if the coming decades will dignify this new tense with a name; I suspect it will simply become an accepted exception.

Too bad there's nothing less trivial to focus on, this last day of peace.