My husband knows how much I want to read the last Larsson. But when he looked over my shoulder at the cover online and saw "Hornet's" he immediately asked with a laugh, "Only one hornet?" Such are the joys of a marriage of true minds (or a copyeditors' marriage).
Apostrophes loom large in any discussion of grammar and style. Lynne Truss's "greengrocer's" apostrophe in the classic Eats Shoots and Leaves; an entire 2-hour class in the grammar course I taught at the New School; a federal government website . . . all indicate the obsession.
That's right, the federal government actually maintains a website that answers the question, How do you spell Veterans Day? (Veterans Day, Veteran's Day, or Veterans' Day?) Worth a visit.
Apostrophes are marks that indicate something--a letter or letters--has been dropped, or ellided. The word comes from ancient Greek, thru Latin and Romance languages. In English, apostrophes appear in contractions and in the possessive forms of nouns.
In contractions such as "don't" or "he's," the apostrophe stands in for the missing "o" and "i"; in constructions such as "rock 'n' roll," the apostrophes stand in for the missing "a" and "d."
In possessive forms, the line of descent from missing letter to ' is a bit more complicated, but once again, the apostrophe stands in for missing letters in an old form of the genitive, or possessive--the "belonging to" or "of" form of a noun, which in older forms of English were often spelled with "es." The apostrophe takes the place of the "e." But it's evolved from there.
In modern English, an apostrophe after a singular noun, like "hornet's" or "ocean's," makes the word indicate "of the hornet" or "of the ocean." An apostrophe after the plural form, like "hornets'" or "oceans'," makes the word indicate "belonging to the hornets" or "of the oceans." The boy's car is different from the boys' car; the car is owned by one or several dudes depending on the apostrophe placement.
Looks simple, but in actual usage it isn't. Much discussion centers on the distributive nature of the possessive: Giuseppe and Ellen's recipes may be one thing; Giuseppe's and Ellen's recipes are another. In Veterans Day, the federal website explains that Veterans means "day for the veterans," not "day of the veterans," making Veterans an attributive noun rather than a possessive. Regarding April Fool's Day, Merriam-Webster explains that both Fools' and Fool's are acceptable variants, although most would agree that the day belongs to the April Fool, an iconic figure, and not to the many who will be fooled by pranks and practical jokes that day.
But the apostrophe is no joke, and it's essential to understand its correct use, lest one's writing fall prey to embarrassing mistakes--like the oft-observed confusion between it's and its.
What's the most embarrassing, or entertaining, apostrophe misuse you've encountered? You'll get credit next week as we continue our discussion!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's currently a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.
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