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 Responses to “The apostrophe: A challenge”

  1. zunguzungu Says:

    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. ben Says:

    “Its happiness”, Jennifer said. “That’s what concerns me most.”

  3. ben Says:

    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.

  4. ben Says:

    “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. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Damn it! I assume the broader context would still clarify things in your examples, but I did only ask for one sentence…

  6. Charlie Collier Says:


  7. Matt in Toledo Says:

    Could word wrap have prevented a Greek collapse?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That must’ve been very difficult to type.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The broader context would totally clear up Ben’s point. But he got you on a technicality.

  10. Charlie Collier Says:

    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.

  11. ben Says:

    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.

  12. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    It could get tricky with the ‘letters, numbers, and use of a word as a word’ rule. Cross out the 4s, 5s, and 6s. You have too many cants in the sentence.

  13. Jason Hills Says:

    There is no reason to require more cognitive resources of the reader just to reduce the number of marks or symbols in a language.

  14. Matt Frost Says:

    @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.

  15. Patrik Says:

    Its a slippery slope. The next step would be asking if we really need vowels. If the Arabs can do without them why do we need them?

  16. david cl driedger Says:

    Vowels, spaces and apostrophes rage against a Barberian (not barbarian) differential.

  17. Daniel Imburgia Says:

    Whos Sartes are whos. (may we dispense with grave, aigu, tre’ma, and circonflexe as well?). Obliged, Danie’l.

  18. christopher Says:

    ‘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’).

  19. ben Says:

    Wait, what could the final “whos” in Daniel’s comment possibly be?

  20. Malcolm Harris Says:

    “Fridays special: $2 PBRs”

  21. Alex Wyman Says:

    “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.

  22. Alex Wyman Says:

    Even better: “I admire that martyrs sacrifice so much.”

  23. Nate W Says:

    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.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Alex’s is good, but the plural version isn’t idiomatic — you’d more likely say “I admire the fact that martyrs sacrifice…”

  25. Jonathon Says:

    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.

  26. betasattva Says:

    “Before eating her steak, she cut up her sons.”

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