Long Live the Apostrophe

Posted on Categories Legal Writing

One of the punctuation marks that causes students the most confusion is the apostrophe. I see plural nouns with apostrophes and possessive nouns without them, and sometimes I just see random apostrophes thrown into any old word that includes an “s.”  I see “it’s” and “its'” when the writer really intends to use “its.”  My students’ current writing assignment involves plaintiffs named Vincent and Cheryl Simms.  In reading students’ drafts, I have seen “Mr. Simms injury,” “Mr. Simm’s injury,” “Mr. Simms’ injury,” and “Mr. Simms’s injury.”  (Just in case any of you are reading this post, I prefer Simms’, though I would also accept Simms’s.)  Some students have simply given up and written “the injury suffered by Mr. Simms.”  I don’t mean to criticize my current students; I have noticed the same issues over the past several years, and my students, past or present, are not alone.

The city council in Birmingham, England, has banned the use of apostrophes in its street signs.  Evidently, the council members grew tired of using their meetings to debate whether various street names should include apostrophes.  One council member was quoted by MSNBC as follows:  “Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed.”  He continued, “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”  You can read more about the council’s decision here.

Not everyone has thrown in the towel, however. 

Two Dartmouth graduates, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, formed a group called the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), and they travelled the country fixing typos along the way.  They, too, noted that one of the most common errors was the misused apostrophe.  Alas, TEAL’s quest came to an end last year after the two visited the Grand Canyon and corrected errors on what turned out to be a historic sign; they used a permanent marker to add a comma and an apostrophe, and they used Wite Out to delete a misplaced apostrophe.  What TEAL viewed as a public service, however, the government viewed as conspiracy to vandalize government property.  Deck and Herson were ordered to pay to restore the sign and sentenced to probation, and they are forbidden from entering any of the national parks during their probation.  The Chicago Tribune provides more details about the TEAL incident here.

Though I have no intent to pick up where TEAL left off, and I do not intend to take my permanent markers and Wite Out on the road, I will continue to fight the good fight in my classroom.  Long live the apostrophe!

3 thoughts on “Long Live the Apostrophe”

  1. Professor,

    Thank you for this post.

    Here is an interesting student paper that includes some rich tidbits on the history of the much-misused apostrophe:


    p.s. The link to the Chicago Trib article is broken, alas. Here is the fixed URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2008/aug/28/travel/chi-typoupdate-0828aug28.

    p.p.s. As for the misplaced TEAL-zeal, one ought to note that in her book “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” Lynne Truss advocated public permanent marker grammar vigilantism. But doubtless she wrote in jest.

    Please pardon the pedantry, but the TEAL boys are asking for it here. On their blog, one of the TEALers has printed a rather turgid statement about the Grand Canyon incident: http://www.jeffdeck.com/teal/. Noting that on his home page the fellow has declared, “I write. I also edit. Perhaps I could be of some service to you,”
    I will let you be the judge of his grammar and punctuation and if he could be of service to you. Please note the semicolon in the 2nd sentence of the Canyon statement. O, and the multiple exclamation marks.

  2. It’s interesting to note (notice the use of the apostrophe) that according to Eats, Shoots & Leaves at page 37, “[t]he English language first picked up the apostrophe in the 16th century. The word in Greek means ‘turning away’, and hence ‘omission’ or ‘elision.'” As time went on, the apostrophe picked up additional uses, including showing possession.

    A few years ago, this humorous article by Jonathan Starble exposed the potential “deep divide” among justices on the United States Supreme Court regarding the pesky problem of whether to add an “apostrophe s” to show possession after a word or name ending in “s.” Early versions of Strunk and White recommended adding the “apostrophe s”, but the more recent trend seems to be just to use an apostrophe. I have vacillated back and forth myself about this matter. Does anyone feel strongly about whether to add the “apostrophe s,” or just use the apostrophe?

  3. Interesting…

    Here is the fixed link to the Starble article: http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=900005551613

    I found only one apostrophe in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, and by modern standards of usage, *it’s* dead wrong (pun deliberate)!

    “No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s [sic] inspection Laws.” US CONST., art. I, sec. 10, cl. 2 (source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html).

    Note, too, that there is only 1 apostphe in the Declaration (“Nature’s God”).

    As for the Federalist Papers (available http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpaper.txt), I found only 2 instances of “s” followed by an apostrophe, with no additional “s.” First, see the third to last sentence of No. 71: “what would be to be feared from an elective magistrate of four **years’** duration…” Second, see the first sentence of the fourth paragraph of No. 75: “it would be utterly unsafe and improper to intrust that power to an elective magistrate of four **years’** duration.”

    So it would appear that the Framers followed the rule not to include an additional “s.”
    So originalist Thomas is on the money, but fellow originalist Scalia is not. Then again, to follow Starble’s article, we don’t pronounce “four years’ duration” as “four yearses duration.” But we do say “Thomases clerk.”

    Are the rules of punctuation a “living, breathing” organism? Does SCOTUS hold the final word on grammar and usage? Is there stare decisis?

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