The apostrophe: A challenge

I am teaching a writing-intensive course this semester, and one challenge is how to deal with students who “aren’t good at grammar.” On the one hand, one does want to help them write in the way generally recognized as “proper.” On the other hand, there is a level at which one must admit that there is something unjust about the way arbitrary conventions are used to judge intelligence — someone who writes in a non-standard way is not regarded simply as non-conformist, but is often judged as being somehow dumb.

In reality, however, it seems that many of our conventions are not only dumb in themselves, but superfluous. For instance, take the use of the apostrophe to designate either possessives or contractions. It seems to me that these apostrophes do not actually add any information that is not already supplied naturally by the context — if you left out all apostrophes, you could still tell which words were contractions (as opposed to homographs like “wont” and “cant,” which are rare to begin with) and, even more radically, I contend that you could tell whether it was a plural, a possessive, or a plural possessive.

To demonstrate this bold claim, I challenge our readers to come up with a sentence that is (a) somewhat plausible and (b) could be genuinely ambiguous if plurals/possessives were not distinguished using apostrophes.

26 thoughts on “The apostrophe: A challenge

  1. Almost as if a lot of writing pedagogy is more geared toward the attainment of cultural capital than of actually useful skills.

    When I teach writing, my philosophy is that local problems like sentence level grammar are as much a symptom of larger, more global problems (like having no clue how to structure an argument) than of something so simple as not knowing how to do it. This may or may not be a rationalization for focusing most of my energy on paragraph and essay level structures, rather than at the level of the sentence, because it’s more interesting, but it’s a rationalization I believe in; the local errors go away when the big structural issues are resolved.

  2. Admittedly in that case the ambiguity comes not from using apostrophes to distinguish between plurals and possessives but from using apostrophes to distinguish between contractions and possessives.

  3. “Mills works overarching topic was the organization of society.”

    John Stuart Mill’s? Or C. Wright Mills’? The goal of his works as a whole, or this one work?


  5. Cut and paste from Word, having formatted to all caps and replaced spaces with nothing. I was just going with the “lighter side” tag and I had no idea it wouldn’t force a line break.

  6. I freely acknowledge that the ambiguities in my sentences would be resolved by context. I’m pretty sure I have seen sentences with ambiguities (or potential ambiguities) that were not so resolved, but I may be misremembering and I certainly couldn’t produce any on demand.

  7. @Jason, you’re right — orthography may be arbitrary (as everything in a language system is), but it carries meaning. Orthography is designed as a set of conventions that in fact make meaning more precise — apostrophes encode specificity.

  8. ‘If the buffalos bills lost, wed find it eventually’. While it could be understood without the apostrophes, it’s a lot easier to understand with them (‘If the buffalo’s bill'[i]s lost, we’d find it eventually’).

  9. “I admire that martyr(‘)s sacrifice.”

    I admire the sacrifice of martyrs generally; or, the object of my admiration is the individual sacrifice of that martyr.

  10. Context usually clears up a mistake or two, like a misused apostrophe. The problem comes in when almost every sentence contains multiple errors, and it’s impossible to even figure out what the context is in the first place.

  11. What I wonder is not whether you can come up with ambiguous or confusing sentences, but whether real confusion or ambiguity results when you take the apostrophes out of regular text. I think it’d be interesting to take a few random pages from Google Books or some other source, strip out the apostrophes, and see what happens.

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