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Who’s Mindful of Who’s Apostrophes’?

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By Anatoly Liberman

While rambling incognito through a remote town, I saw this sign gracing the upper floor of a restaurant: “The Party’s at Sally’s.” I was intrigued. The quotes look out of place, I thought, unless the whole is the title of a movie or musical. However, the smell coming out of the building in conjunction with rather wild music convinced me that the establishment was indeed an “eatery” in which the party was never over. But forget the quotes. What is “party’s”?

I am used to encountering both impertinent an offensive apostrophes. Among other courses, I teach German folklore, and for many years my required book was The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I regularly apologized to the students and explained that there had been two brothers who dealt with oral tradition, Jacob and Wilhelm; consequently, the tales were the Grimms’—never mind the words on the cover. My explanation had little effect, and in half of the papers the Grimm’s showed up in their (his? its?) pristine beauty. Near the same undisclosed town mentioned above, in an area studded with cabins, a board with the words “The Smith’s” once made me cringe. I knew the owners well. Why did respectable people, the parents of two children (both in college), subject themselves to such an indignity? And why didn’t their son and daughter—students, as pointed out—correct this monstrosity? Perhaps they took their cue from one of the Grim(m‘s) tales. Astounding! What is the Smith outside a contrived context like: “This is not the Smith I am looking for. This is Jack Smith, and I have an appointment with Bobby Smith”? Even “The Smiths’” would have made little sense there; surely, the cabin owners could have no intention of saying: “At the Smiths.” “The Smiths,” just “The Smiths” (or “The Smythes,” if need be) would have satisfied both the mailman and the choosiest visitor. Presumably, an apostrophe was put in to lend glamour to the sign. But to return to the beginning of this story. My first thought was that the party’s stood for the parties; yet the definite article reassured me. The enigmatic ‘s could not stand for does (as in what’s he say about it?), has (as in he’s done it), or us (as in let’s do it). So what did it mean? And then it dawned upon me “The Party Is at Sally’s.” Of course, where else could it be?

It was not the brightest day for the English speaking world when the apostrophe invaded its books. The history of this event, which dates to the middle of the 16th century, though usage vacillated even two centuries later, has been hardly investigated at all. I was unable to find a single serious publication on the subject and do not know on what grounds it is contended that the source of the new punctuation mark was French. However, it is true that the French made use of it before the Britons. Its function was to point to elision, and we still come across bo’s’n for boson ~ boatswain and o’er for over, though not ship’l for ship full. Those are exotic cases, however. Equally exotic (at least to the modern eye) are 19th-century spellings like kiss’d. Typesetters used it in Complete Works of Byron, Shelley, and their contemporaries to emphasize that kissed despite its look had only one syllable (could anybody doubt it?). Other than that, we no longer mind would’ve done (expanded by generations of undergraduates into would of done), who’s afraid of… (this is where “The Party’s” comes in), he’ll, didn’t, 1960’s, NATO’s, and even the poetic mannerism ’tis for it is. In most cases, the elision is self-explanatory, and the fact that something has been left out needs no rubbing in, but, as H.W. Fowler noted in his Modern English Usage (the most idiosyncratic but also the most readable and entertaining of the many books bearing the same title: if you want to enjoy it, stop at the second edition), when ‘ed is added to words with unusual endings (-a, -i, and -o, for instance), an apostrophe saves the written image from looking absurd: the feed counsel is baffling and should better be spelled fee’d.

All this being said, we realize that the main function of the apostrophe is to stand before the so-called -s possessive. And this is why the introduction of the apostrophe did not augur well for the future of the English speaking world. To be sure, days end and day’s end are distinguished nicely on paper, but English has countless homophones, which no one confuses because their contexts “disambiguate” them: consider I saw this old grave ~ this is an old grave saw (“proverb”) ~ I can’t saw with this saw. In a sentence, days end and day’s end never get into each other’s way.

The genitive of the noun day was disyllabic centuries ago. Since that time, English has lost all its cases. In 1970’s and fee’d counsel, the apostrophe is a convenient typographic device. The full forms of he’ll, should’ve, and didn’t can be reconstructed, for he will, should have, and did not also exist, but what has been elided in day’s end or Day’s Inn? Here an apostrophe is a monument to Middle English, a language worthy of an obelisk, but in some other form (the great Middle English Dictionary serves this purpose admirably). The rival ‘s = is (forgetting for the moment about does, has, and us) muddies the waters still more: the party’s at Sally’s, Tom’s at Dick’s, Dick’s at Harry’s. The instinct for the s-possessive is strong, and thousands of people spell it’s instead of its. They do not (don’t) know that throughout the 18th century the pronoun its was indeed spelled it’s. The same healthy instinct makes them write who’s and who’se for whose. Indeed, the difference between who’s house and whose house is hard to grasp. Who’s house? Tom’s. No one can object to this parallelism.

Not only is the use of the apostrophe but also the word apostrophe tricky. The noun’s ultimate Greek origin needs no proof: the sum of apo- “away” + stroph- “turn” (stroph-, as in strophe and catastrophe) yields the meaning “turning away.” But English has apostrophe “a digressive address” (it reproduces the Greek form; from it the verb apostrophize comes) and apostrophe “the sign of elision.” The first of them is a rhetorical term. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had “a weakness for apostrophe,” as an English translator of his Confessions observed. At the entrance exam, the young Winston Churchill was asked to decline the word table, for in those days English school teachers had not yet realized that English and Latin are different languages. The correct answer should have been: nominative the table, genitive of the table, dative to/for the table, accusative the table, ablative by the table. He managed the first five cases but could not think of the vocative. The examiner helped him: “This is the case you use when you apostrophize a table.” “But I never apostrophize a table,” Churchill responded and failed to produce o table. (Later Chekhov made a character in The Cherry Orchard address a piece of furniture in such heartfelt words: “Dear, esteemed wardrobe!”) By contrast, the sign of elision is an adaptation of late Latin apostrophus and should have become apostroph (compare French apostrophe and German Apostroph). It also indicates a turning away; an interruption, a gap, but, although etymologically the same as apostrophe “a digressive address,” it is a different word, for it lacks a Greek prototype. In English the two words were confused and finally merged, “through ignorance,” according to the caustic remark of the OED.

Many other apostrophic puzzles are not my concern, for my focus is, as always, on language history. Let the apostrophe in your life, and you will begin wondering about Venus’ versus Venus’s, three hours’ walk versus three hours walk, someone else’s versus someone’s else, and the difference between is/has/does and us. But it’s too late to repent. What’s been done can’t be undone. Don’t despair and remember the main thing: “The Party’s at Sally’s.” See you there.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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4 Responses to “Who’s Mindful of Who’s Apostrophes’?”
  1. Dan says:

    You meant to say “impertinent an’ offensive apostrophes,” surely.

  2. mollymooly says:

    In Ireland at least, ’tis, ’twill, ‘twouldn’t and the rest are by no means poetic mannerisms; though, being restricted to colloquial speech, we rarely see all those apostrophes in print.

  3. [...] and how they Annoy Smart People July 10, 2008 The Oxford Etymologist chimes in on the annoying ways people use apostrophes and what, pray tell, can be done about [...]

  4. Barry says:

    Shuldn’t the second “Who’s” in the title be “Whose?”

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