The Apostrophe Catastrophe
Such a deceiving little character the apostrophe is. It’s light and floats above the line. It flits between letters allowing us to add dialect to our dialogue, condense words, and show possession. At first blush, it looks like a harmless, helpful elf that wins our trust with a wink. And then, just like a light breeze in cahoots with puffy white clouds can turn a beautiful afternoon into a severe weather event, that innocent-appearing mark of punctuation has the uncanny ability to wreak havoc in the mind of the writer, causing the flow of words to come to a screeching halt, and for one to suffer an acute case of monkey brain.
I have been jonesing to attack the rules of the apostrophe and today I begin that challenge. I invite you to accompany me on this journey, but I must warn you, the odds of us sinking to the depths of Davy Jones’s locker are extremely high. In fact, it’s pretty much a sure bet. If you’re still game, let’s dive into the deep, apostrophe-infested waters and tackle …
The Obsessive Possessive
“What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is my own.”
~James Joyce, Ulysses
Surely the apostrophe does not like the fact that it doesn’t get to participate in games with certain possessive pronouns (my, mine, our, ours, your, yours, his, her, its, their, and theirs). But never fear, that pesky apostrophe has many more occasions to make writers tremble in fear when they use it and to cause proofreaders and copy editors to mutter expletives each time they reach for their CMoS to verify the correct use of this obsessive possessive.
No more monkey business. It’s time to take the plunge. Follow me. Take a deep breath, pinch your nose closed with your fingers, and jump. Don’t look down. Just jump.
Monkey see, monkey do.
CMoS 7.15: Possessive form of most nouns. “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s.’ The possessive of plural nouns … is formed by adding an apostrophe only.”
The monkey’s (singular/possessive) uncle. Or—the circus’s monkey.
The monkeys’ (plural/possessive) uncles. Or—the circuses’ monkeys.
The family’s (singular/possessive) monkey.
The families’ (plural/possessive) monkeys.
“Just ‘cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”
7.16 Possessive of proper nouns, letters, and numbers. “The general rule extends to proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, in both their singular and plural forms, as well as letters and numbers.”
Davy Jones’s (singular/possessive) role in the Monkees.
The Joneses’s (plural/possessive) locker held the children’s monkey.
Dang! This is more fun than a barrel of monkeys … not!
7.19 Possessive of nouns plural in form, singular in meaning.
“When the singular form of a noun ending in “s” is the same as the plural, the possessive of both are formed by the addition of an apostrophe only.”
Politics’ true meaning
“The same rule applies when the name of a place or an organization or a publication is a plural form ending in ‘s,’ such as the United States, even though the entity is singular.”
The United States’ position on circuses putting monkeys in barrels.
7.20 “For … sake” expressions. For euphony’s sake (or just to throw a monkey wrench in the works) a few “for … sake” expressions used with a singular noun that ends in an “s” end in an apostrophe alone, omitting the additional “s.”
For goodness’ sake, for righteousness’ sake, for the circus’ sake.
“Aside from these traditional formulations, however, the possessive in ‘for … sake’ expressions may be formed in the normal way.”
For expedience’s sake, for appearance’s sake, for the Joneses’s sake … oh, for monkey’s sake.
Listen, don’t blame me. Not my circus, not my monkeys.
7.22 Joint versus separate possession. “Closely linked nouns are considered a single unit in forming the possessive when the thing being ‘possessed’ is the same for both; only the second element takes the possessive form.” Another way to say it—the apostrophe “s” is added to the word nearest the object of possession.
Joint possession: Davy and Shirley’s locker.
Separate possession: Tommy Lee’s and James Earl’s monkeys.
Have I lost you yet? Are you keeping up with all the Joneses?
7.24 Possessive with genitive. “Analogous to possessives, and formed like them, are certain expressions based on the old genitive case. The genitive here implies ‘of.’”
In three days’ time the circus will be in town.
An hour’s delay made the monkeys hungry.
Six months’ leave of absence to renovate Davy Jones’s locker.
7.25 Possessive versus attributive forms. “The line between a possessive or genitive form (see 7.24) and a noun used attributively—to modify another noun—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employees’ cafeteria (and ladies’ room) appear without an apostrophe, CMoS dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (corporate names) that do not use one or where there is clearly no possessive meaning.”
– children’s rights, farmers’ market, women’s soccer team, boys’ clubs … BUT …
Department of Veterans Administration and Charlotte Writers Group.
Holidays showing possession.
Mother’s and Father’s Days (each gets their own special day), Presidents’ Day (Washington and Lincoln have to share), April Fool’s (just one fool) Day, Veterans Day (for historical reasons–um, really?), Daylight Saving (not savings) Time, and last but not least, Circus Comes to Town Day … wait, that’s not a holiday? Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.
Now that I got the obsessive possessive monkey off my back, the next time the circus comes to town and we continue our analysis of the apostrophe catastrophe, we’ll be ready for the “Contraction Reaction.”
“If you surround yourself with clowns, don’t be surprised when your life resembles a circus.”