The lady was walking into the conference hall when the security person stopped her. She said, “I am one of the director’s wives,” and flashed past security. Some questions arise here. How many directors? How many wives? And, where should you place the apostrophe?
The apostrophe is actually a very simple mark serving simple grammatical functions. It stands for the omitted elements of a contraction, as in hasn’t, mustn’t and shan’t. When single letters are used as words, it helps to form their plural: as in “mind your p’s and q’s”. A contraction of a different kind is seen in the ’20s. Until recently, apostrophes were used to form the plurals of abbreviations (MA’s), dates (1980’s) and words or characters serving as words (if’s and but’s). Today we don’t use an apostrophe with the “s” in these examples.
The apostrophe figures most prominently in the discussion of possessives. Two basic rules are taught in school. For singular nouns add apostrophe with “s”, as in the child’s toys, the officer’s house. For plural nouns ending with “s”, add an apostrophe without “s”: ladies’ room, boys’ club, old wives’ tales. For plurals not ending in “s” add apostrophe and “s”, as in children’s park, women’s liberation, alumni’s meeting.
For singular nouns ending with “s”, add apostrophe and “s”. Keats’s poetry, Dickens’s novels, the witness’s report. If the next word begins with “s”, use only an apostrophe to avoid the triple repetition of “s”: the witness’ story, Keats’ sonnets.
Personal pronouns make a separate group of possessives that do not need an apostrophe. The list consists of mine, ours, your, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose.
“Its”, the possessive, is often confused with “it’s”, contraction of “it is”.
Some Greek names ending in “s” take an apostrophe without the “s”. Archimedes’ principle, Socrates’ philosophy, Achilles’ heel.
Compound words add an apostrophe or apostrophe with “s” to the final element. Procter and Gamble’s products, attorney general’s remarks; the lord mayor’s procession. Brother-in-law is an interesting example. The apostrophe attaches to law and not brother. The plural form is brothers-in-law. The possessives corresponding to these two are brother-in-law’s estate, and brothers-in-law’s estates. In “James and Mary’s house”, the apostrophe in the final element shows joint possession of the house. If we write “James’s and Mary’s houses”, the houses are individually owned.
The double possessive combines two forms: the “of possessive” as in “house of Mary” and the normal possessive, as in Mary’s. This gives us “that house of Mary’s.” This construction is common: “that impish son of yours”, “a friend of mine”, “a play of Shakespeare’s”. A picture of Mary’s suggests that the picture belongs to her; a picture of Mary suggests that it shows a likeness of Mary.
Another special form of the possessive is a noun that ends with an “s” sound and is followed by a word that begins with “s”: for goodness’ sake, for conscience’ sake, for appearance’ sake. If in place of sake we have a word not beginning with “s”, we use apostrophe plus “s”, as in “my conscience’s prompting”.
But all is not well with the status of the apostrophe. Users of English have strong feelings about punctuation. Just as Churchill derided the hyphen as a blemish on the language, Bernard Shaw labelled the apostrophes as uncouth bacilli, to be expunged from grammar books. William Langley said that the apostrophe was the problem child of English grammar (The Telegraph). People who want to defend the apostrophe have formed the Apostrophe Protection Society. Since the general trend today is towards simplification of punctuation, we might find some of these rules dropped and some others modified to suit a simpler style of writing.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.