Apostrophe does double duty

and it's overworked, too

Frank Zappa said “The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe”.  That was thirty years ago, and I still don’t know what he meant.  I do know that the apostrophe has fallen on hard times.


I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for apostrophe abuses around Colorado Springs.  I figured in a month or two there might be enough to write a column. Boy was I wrong.  I could write a book. 


For example:  What am I to make of “CLASSIC CAR CONDO’S”, not too far from my house.  Is it an unfinished headline?  Is the building the personal property of a classic car condo?  I think of that poor apostrophe every time I drive by.  I imagine it hanging bravely on its own, pondering the reason for its existence like some bored French philosopher.


Or how about this:  “LADIE’S APPAREL”, from a store now out of business.  Their heart was in the right place, but the apostrophe wasn’t.


Barry Fagin




The trick is to remember that possessive pronouns don’t use the apostrophe.  It’s busy enough already.  We say mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs,  and of course the dreaded its.  Not an apostrophe in the bunch. 


All that’s left are plural possessives.  If the plural doesn’t end in “s”, then it’s just like the singular:  “Men’s Retreat”, “Children’s Hour”.  If it ends in s, the apostrophe bravely marches to the end:  “LADIES’ APPAREL”, “FUNDS’ AVAILABILITY”


So where does the apostrophe go on a party invitation?  If people are coming to your house, give them “ Directions to the Smiths’ ”.  If people are coming to see your family, give them “Directions to the Smiths”.   But please don’t give them “Directions to the Smith’s” unless you’re holding a horseshoeing contest.


What if your last name is Jones?  If I’m running in the sack race at your family reunion, then I’m keeping up with the Joneses.  If I need to get to your house, I need directions to the Joneses’.  This is one of the few times I’m glad my last name is Fagin.

Friends, we stand accused of multiple counts of apostrophe abuse.  I offer as evidence “MANAGERS OFFICE”, “OFFICIALS LOCKER ONLY”, and “DIRECTIONS TO THE [last name]’S”.  The saddest cases were inside a local school: “TEACHERS NAME” and “STUDENTS NAME”.  Where is my 6th grade English teacher when we need her?


It’s not the apostrophe’s fault for being AWOL.  It’s just overworked from doing double duty.  The apostrophe serves both to make contractions, and to indicate possession.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep the two straight.  But we should try. 


Contractions aren’t too tough.  The most common uses are to shorten phrases with common words like“is” and “not”.  “It is” contracts to “It’s”, “Is not” contracts to “Isn’t”. Most people get that right.


Possession isn’t much harder.  For your garden variety singular noun, just add “ ’s ” to it. “Bill’s book”, “Our store’s Big Sale”, and of course “STUDENT’S NAME”.  We sticklers will cut business and place names a little slack here, but it’s always nice to see the rule followed.  Three cheers for Sam’s Club and Michelle’s!  

So we see how hard the apostrophe works.  Even if the rules are hard to remember, it’s worth the effort.  Plus, there’s one thing you can always count on:  The apostrophe is never needed for plurals.


At least, I thought that was true.  Unfortunately, I found an office supply store that sells “PDA’s”.  We’ve also got a tanning salon with “WALK-IN’S WELCOME”. 


Please, people, enough is enough.  The apostrophe is already pulling double shifts.  When is it going to spend time with its family?  When is it going to get any sleep?


When it comes to plurals, leave the apostrophe alone.  It’s not necessary.  In fact, it makes things worse.  Should I really be allowed to write “The YMCA’s open all night.”, “The YMCA’s members get a good deal.”, and “The Village People love YMCA’s.”?  If I were an apostrophe, I’d hang myself from the nearest upper margin. 


That’s just the way ‘tis.

© 2005, Barry Fagin

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