Possessive Apostrophe: Why You Shouldn't Care

So a while ago there was some furor when it became public that the city of Birmingham, England was planning to drop apostrophes from street signs. The general response from the Anglophone public seemed to be that this was a clear sign of the apocalypse and the apostrophes must be defended at all costs.

Really, people? Really?

Language Log has posted before about the illogicality of word rage, and apostrophe obsession is one of the reasons I refuse to read Eats, Shoots and Leaves no matter how many people recommend it to me. If you (in general, not Lynn Truss specifically) are going to suggest, even humorously, that people who misuse apostrophes should be mutilated or murdered, you obviously need to get a different hobby.

Because I'm going to tell you a little story.

Old English--the language that the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes spoke when they showed up in Great Britain a few centuries back--had cases. If you have studied languages like German, Russian, Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit, you know all about cases and can go hide under a table and cry for a bit. If you don't know about cases, well, they're just changes that you make to nouns and adjectives--new endings, usually--based on what those words are doing in a sentence. A subject gets one case, an object gets another, and so on.(They're why modern English makes a distinction between I and me.)

Cases have two functions: one, they make it clear what words are doing in a sentence, even if you've gone and put them all out of order for artistic purposes, and two, they make the people trying to learn your language hide under tables and cry. (Because they don't know what case they're in, or how they got there, or how to get out of it again, and just when they think they've got it sorted they discover it's a special case with an irregular stem. Not that I know anything about this, Russian secondary locative.) I suspect that Old English cases were used as a form of psychological warfare against the Welsh, possibly in retaliation for the initial mutation.

Now, specifically, Old English had a genitive case. This case is the ancestor of Our English's possessive form: it let Old Englishmen (and -women) tack one noun onto another to indicate a relationship between the two. The ending for the Old English genitive was -es, pronounced, rather logically, as "ess." It gave us words like:

"king" = cyng --> cynges /kyNes/, where /N/ is the "ng" sound and /y/ is basically German ΓΌ
"cat" = catt --> cattes /kates/
"fish" = fisc --> fisces /fiSes/, where /S/ is "sh"

So you could say things like "cynges catt" for "The king's cat," "cattes fisc" for "the cat's fish (which she is eating at present)," even "fisces cyng" in the event you discovered that fish had royalty. Straightforward, right?

Well, somewhere on its way to becoming Middle English, Old English cases started to fade away. The vowels turned to schwas and then the schwas dropped off, like sixth fingers after you've tied a string around the bottom for a while. (Yes, that's a gross analogy, but I'm standing by it.) The consonants in the endings mostly fell off, but not all of them; /s/ is in fact a very persistant little bugger that hung on, though it sometimes changed to a /z/ in order to blend in better with the new neighbors. So those words up top became the more familiar:

king --> kings /kiNz/
cat --> cats /kats/
fish --> fishes /fiSez/

Wait a minute! you cry. Why didn't the vowel disappear from "fishes"? Well, because "fishs" is stupid. No, really; /s/ belongs to a family of consonants called "coronal fricatives," and if you try to pronounce two of those in a row, you will naturally insert a little schwa vowel in between to distinguish them. (The coronoal fricatives are /s z S ch/ and /Z/, which is like the "z" in "azure" and kind of marginal in English.) If the two consonants had just merged together, or if the /s/ had come off, there would've been no genitive distinction whatsoever for those words, and that would've been odd and problematic, the kind of breaks in pattern that speakers tend to intuitively fix via analogy (kind of how kids try to say I brang it on analogy with I sang it). So for words that ended with coronal fricatives, the vowel in the genitive ending hung on, to keep the two consonants on either side from encroaching on each other.

Or maybe your cry was: Wait a minute! Are those possessive forms or plural forms?

To which I say: Yes.

See, at this point there wasn't really any distinction between plural -s and possessive -s. Well, they were distinct in use, of course, but there was no need to disambiguate them in writing. Partly with was because most Middle Englishmen were illiterate and didn't care, and partly because there wasn't a standard spelling system anyway, and partly because...well, if they're not distinct in speech and this is somehow not a problem, why do you need to disambiguate them in writing? Seriously, this is not a problem 99% of the time; I have had more trouble making the distinction between "wight" and "white" in speech than between "students" and "student's." (Though I grant I am probably unusual in how often I talk about wights.) When was the last time you mistook a possessive for a plural or vice-versa? As opposed to any other kind of homophone? Go on, think about it for a minute.

But this does raise the question of where the killer apostrophes that everyone's so excited about came from, if they're not necessary. (And hint: they're not.) To understand, you have to remember that all the Old Englishmen were dead at this point, and the Middle Englishmen had only their own speech to work with. And what they had was the paradigm represented like this:


At this point, the genitive/possessive was the only case ending left in English. And somehow, a large number of Middle Englishmen decided it wasn't an ending at all. They did a re-analysis of their language, and their conclusions looked something like this:

/kiNz/ = king his
/kats/ = cat his
/fiSez/ = fish his

That's right. They took the ending and decided it was, instead, a very oddly placed pronoun. And they wrote it this way. There are plenty of attested texts with phrases like "the king his justice" and "Moses his mercy" and even "the wife his child" even though that doesn't really make sense from a gender point of view. But if the -/ez/ in /fiSez/ is a form of the pronoun "his," then the -/z/ in /kiNz/ and the -/s/ in /kats/ must really be contractions of that pronoun.

And how do we denote contractions?

fish his

And in the interests of consistency, that last eventually because "fish's" (our old friend analogy again) giving us the plural/possessive apostrophe rules we all know and freak out about.

(Where did the rule about plural possessives come from? The one that puts the apostrophe on the outside? Not sure; probably an attempt by eighteenth-century Latinistas to make English more "logical," for their own ideas of logic. Archbishop Lowth, I'm looking at you.)

So the possessive apostrophe was born out of a goofy-but-pervasive orthographical glitch. And its use was not at all standardized even into relatively recent times--Language Log cites a letter by Thomas Jefferson that doesn't use it once, and Tom was a pretty clever guy in his day. I'm not sure exactly when the apostrophe was raised to the status of shibboleth for the educated classes but it is definitely not a benchmark for the progression of the apocalypse. In fact, the "misuses" that some people love to spazz about--"CD's for sale," "I like taco's," "I Tivo'd it," etc.--reflect another ongoing re-analysis of how to use the apostrophe: as the marker of a morpheme boundary. (And the fact that this "misuse" is still perfectly legible, if unusual, ought to tell us something.)

That's why I don't have any problem with omitting possessive apostrophes in English. If it represented some kind of useful information or distinction--like the contraction apostrophe--that's one thing. (Though other languages seem to contract just fine without apostrophes, either.) But it's just an orthographic anomaly, somewhere between the persistence of silent "e"s on the ends of words and the elements of Shaw's "ghoti" in terms of its practicality, and I do not think the world will end if we quietly set it aside. Inertia and sentimentality are certainly not sufficient justifications to hang on to it.

(Strangely enough, the Internet cannot tell me if Birmingham actually went through with its apostrophe-elimination initiative, or if the council caved under backlash from enraged prescriptivists. Anyone from the area willing to comment?)

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Comments 2 comments

Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

Well, I go into Birmingham quite a lot and I hadn't realised that this was an issue. I was under the impression that most of the apostrophes had been lost from street signs decades ago and that only a few interesting ones were left ~ for old time's sake.

Or should that be old times'? ~ Not sure :)

I am going to link this item to mine, if that's ok with you.

I loved Lynne Truss's book and I like to see apostrophes in the right place, but, I found your counter argument very persuasive :)

butterflywings1 2 years ago

I think we should lose the apostrophe and use just the 's' to denote posession and plural.

old times sake

gentlemans hat

CDs so much easier...simples...and more modern.

girls shoes



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