Monday, May 21, 2012

For Grammars Sake: Abolish the Possessive Apostrophe

Possessive nouns are declined free, and everywhere they are in apostrophes. How did this happen? I do not know. Why does it need to be corrected? I think I can answer this question.

English has three cases, or forms that nouns can take depending on their role in a sentence: subjective, objective, and possessive. There’s almost no difference in form between the subjective and objective cases: what difference there is is mostly restricted to pronouns. Hence: he (subjective) tasted his tongue sandwich, but not before it tasted him (objective). But Mary milked the cow and the cow licked Mary: for most nouns, the English case system has regrettably withered away almost entirely.
Not so, thankfully, for the possessive case. Almost all nouns in English still take an s when they refer to objects or people that possess others: consider the king’s taster, Plato’s lunacy, and my brother’s keeper. But as these examples make clear, the s isn’t just appended to its noun, as we might expect. An apostrophe inexplicably intervenes. I say inexplicably, because this use of the apostrophe is by any standard unwarranted. In almost all of its other uses, the apostrophe is a stand-in for a letters that have been omitted: I can’t come to the club because my dog’s decided to chew my checker’d coat. In the case of possessive nouns, there is no letter to leave out, and hence no need for an apostrophe. There’s no logical reason that François Hollande is France’s president and not Frances; that Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and not Lou Gehrigs.

Perhaps we English speakers are so squeamish about our ancient Germanic case system that we’ve decided to sanitize it. Rather than let our nouns go forth with naked esses, proclaiming joyfully and innocently their full-hearted allegiance to the possessive case, we nervously separate them from their rightful endings out of pale timidity. Better, after all, to give the impression that the s is an unnatural addition to the noun-stem, that it’s an innocuous result of schoolroom pedantry. But our prudery has a cost: in our refusal to face the unbearable, irresistible pleasure of the unsullied cases, we’ve doused the blazing furnaces of our souls with a shower of tiny drops of ink. The stout-hearted followers of King Harold, by contrast, surely went to their doom at Hastings shouting their genitive battle-cries in terrible grammatical purity. Weop eal gesceaft, cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Cyninges!

As for the factual, historical origin of the apostrophe, a bumbling though well-meaning printer probably decided it would be a good idea around the year 1750, and no one bothered to correct his mistake.

There are, I concede, some useful functions of the possessive apostrophe. For one, it helps distinguish the schoolboy’s chair from the schoolboys’; the hart’s longing for the stream from the harts’ extermination during hunting season. This, though, is a trivial advantage. If it’s not clear from context that the writer intends the plural form of the noun, the writer wrote a bad sentence.

In any case, the Germans, who also mark their possessive case with an s, have got along without the possessive apostrophe for at least a century. They do fine. More than fine—the Germans enjoy just as much of the old pleasure of the Proto-Germanic case system as the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes did. Granted, German doesn’t pluralize its nouns with an s as much as we do, so there’s less room for ambiguity. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the vault of heaven would not collapse if we followed suit.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, in an inspiring display of stern courage, has already gotten the message: in 1894, it forbade the use of the possessive apostrophe in all domestic place names, with a few regrettable exceptions. (See chapter V of this list of guidelines.)

Abolition, then, is both desirable and possible. The last remnant of our stark and strangely beautiful case system is drowning in a pit of black, writhing maggots. Who is on orthographys side? let him come unto me.

No comments: