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Friday, March 23, 2007

Angst Over the Apostrophe-S Reaches the New York Times

posted by on March 23 at 12:20 PM

If you’ve been around Slog for a while, you will remember our bitter apostrophe-S wars. I can’t bear them anymore, so I won’t link. However. We are not alone! Today the New York Times has its chief copy editor answering questions from readers, and what is the second question (after “What do copy desks do?”) that the copy chief receives?

Q. Obviously we add both an apostrophe and an “s” to indicate the possessive of singular nouns (Mary’s hair, the desk’s top). Obviously we do this even when the last letter/sound of the noun is an “s” (Bob Jones’s hair, a mouse’s tail, the bus’s engine). Why should the plural be different? (the desks’ color, the trees’ value, the Walshes’ favorite restaurant). Are we punctuating them differently because “bus” and “bus’s” sound different, but “trees” sounds the same as “trees’”? Always was puzzled by this rule.

ó Jim Walsh

For the chief copy editor’s answer, and a link to a story about the Arkansas Legislature passing a resolution (!) related to this matter, see here.

RSS icon Comments

1

Her description of transformational generative grammar as a method of teaching English is very odd, to say the least.

Posted by Gabriel | March 23, 2007 12:39 PM
2

I'm so glad she get's right to the point and put's that argument to rest.

Posted by Marty T. | March 23, 2007 12:51 PM
3

I agree with everything she says except "If the word ends in two sibilant sounds (ch, j, s, sh, x or z) separated only by a vowel sound, drop the s after the apostrophe (Kansas' climate; Texas' population).". Gross. Texas's population, please.

Posted by Fnarf | March 23, 2007 12:51 PM
4

It doesn't seem his question was answered. As far as I can tell, he was asking why plurals are possessivized by adding ' rather than 's. Which seems to me like asking why sky means that thing above us, or why cow is spelled with a c and not a k.

Posted by Levislade | March 23, 2007 12:56 PM
5

Sanders's stubbornness still astounds.

Posted by annie | March 23, 2007 1:16 PM
6

As terrible as my grammar (and punctuation and spelling and structure and probably pronounciation but you can't hear that part) on Slog is - this stuff really fascinates me. American English is one crazy language.

One of my first production art jobs I had I worked closely with technical editors and the they would love to argue this stuff to no end, compounded by the fact that at the time words like "E-mail", or "E" anything really, were pretty new to print (and have sadly yet to be standarized that I'm aware of).

"Appendices" vs. "Appendixes" vs. "Appendix" still gives me the shivers.

Posted by Dougsf | March 23, 2007 1:27 PM
7

What are your favorite Style & Usage manuals?

Posted by golob | March 23, 2007 1:33 PM
8

One thing this does not address is the issue of the use of apostrophes in the plural form of a number, as in "1980's". It should be "1980s", if anything. That always annoys me, because I'm just that kind of nitpicky SOB.

Posted by tsm | March 23, 2007 1:37 PM
9

Dougsf: "Pronunciation"

Sorry, couldn't resist. Carry on.

Posted by Levislade | March 23, 2007 1:39 PM
10

I warned you!

TSM, are both example correct? (ignore the sentence structure please):

In the 1980s, Webster was on television, but To Close for Comfort had better 1980's fashions.


Posted by Dougsf | March 23, 2007 2:25 PM
11

@10 - I'd object to the second usage, because it's still not being used in the possessive form - the year 1980 does not own the fashions in question. You're just using "1980s" as an adjective there.

Posted by tsm | March 23, 2007 2:39 PM
12

Thanks tsm. I suppose "1980s" can't be possesive like I was attempting, which I guess was one of your original points.

I suppose it wasn't the 1980s the owned those fashion, it was Monroe. Monroe owned those fashions.

Another annoyance - and I think this comes from the APA, a music editor friend of mine just told me his publication has started using the rule: NOT capitalizing the "T" in "the" when printing band names (assuming the band's name officially begins with a "The" of course.)

Posted by Dougsf | March 23, 2007 3:16 PM
13

@8: It does address that, if you keep reading. From Page 3:

"As to the question above (and frequently submitted) of why we put apostrophes in decades (the 1960's) and in the plural of some all-capitalized initialisms (DVDís), the answer is we don't anymore. Phil Corbett, the deputy news editor who is in charge of the stylebook, eliminated those anachronisms last October, with this comment:

Our main reason for using the apostrophe had been to avoid confusion in all-cap heds, but with those heds long since eliminated everywhere but Page One, that rationale is no longer compelling. And the apostrophe annoyed many readers, who thought we were mistakenly using a possessive form instead of a plural.

We hear you, and obey."

Posted by Aislinn | March 23, 2007 3:21 PM
14

I often misuse the contraction "it's" when I mean the possessive "its" but I don't understand what the big deal is.

The use of the apostrophe s is appropriate in both cases at other times, such as:

Possessive: "Joe's tool."
Contraction: "Joe's a tool."

Posted by elswinger | March 23, 2007 3:42 PM
15

"E-mail" is an abomination promulgated by Microsoft, which has sadly almost superceded the much earlier and correct "email". Ironically, when Microsoft was spreading theirs, they didn't even know what the fuck email really was. Some would say they still don't. And I say that as someone who humps Exchange Server all day long.

I may be forgetting a legitimate use or two, but none of the other "e-" formations are tolerable at all. Email is one thing; e-commerce and, god forbid, e-tailing (bleaauargghhh) are just plain wrong. People who use these words, and related atrocities like "webinar" should be drowned.

Posted by Fnarf | March 23, 2007 6:56 PM
16

I fucking HATE it when people pluralize with apostrophe-s. I can understand mixing up more complicated grammar/punctuation things, especially since most Americans have never studied grammar or a foreign language, but why is it so fucking difficult to just put an s for a plural? English is absurdly easy to make plurals in, so why complicate it?

Posted by Megan | March 23, 2007 8:45 PM
17

I'm sorry. I wanted post a comment earlier, but I fell asleep.

Posted by lawrence clark | March 23, 2007 11:54 PM
18

While we're groaning, can I add compound proper-nouns or however it is you'd describe every new technology related company with names like WebSense or ActiveCard or AmberWave and so on and so on and so on. I know WHY they do it, but it's evil.

Posted by Dougsf | March 25, 2007 4:45 PM
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