The Singular Possessive Apostrophe
A reader asks,
Could you please do a post on possessives versus plurals? I’m seeing this mistake more and more, to the point where I saw someone use an apostrophe for a plural on a billboard.
That wretched, wretched apostrophe! Why can’t we get it straight?
The answer is complicated. In this post I’ll explain why the apostrophe is used to form the singular possessive. Its use with plurals will have to wait for another post.
The apostrophe came into English from French in the 16th century. The French used the apostrophe to indicate elision: the dropping of a vowel letter. For example, in French l’heure, (“the hour”), the apostrophe stands in place of the a of the article la.
English writers use the apostrophe in the same way, to replace letters in contractions like don’t for “do not,” and I’ll for “I will” or “I shall.”
The use of the apostrophe in English would have been straightforward and not at all confusing if it hadn’t been for a complication already existing in the language: the breakdown of noun inflections.
In Old English, nouns were spelled with different endings to indicate possession and number (singular or plural). Where modern English uses the apostrophe to show possession, OE used inflections. Here’s a rough idea;
king’s horse = mearh cyninges (horse of king)
king’s horses = mearas cyninges (horses of king)
The -es inflection on cyninges is the equivalent of modern ’s.
kings’ horses = mearas cyninga (horses of kings)
Cyniga is plural; the inflection -a is the equivalent of putting an apostrophe on the plural kings.
The loss of noun inflections has simplified English grammar, but it has also lumbered us with apostrophes to show possession.
As early at the 13th century–long before the arrival of the apostrophe–English speakers had become confused about the possessive.
Spoken, the possessive ending sounded like “is.” For example, “the kinges horse” sounded like “the king is horse.” Because the pronoun his was pronounced “is” in unstressed positions, the mistaken idea grew up that the possessive was formed of a noun plus his. In time, this notion enabled Shakespeare and his contemporaries to write constructions like this:
[against] the count his galleys I did some service –Othello
When the apostrophe was introduced into English orthography in the 16th century, constructions like “the count his galleys,” “James his throne,” and “the king his horse” gave way to “the count’s galleys,” “James’s throne,” and “the king’s horse.”
In the mistaken notion that the apostrophe was replacing the word his, the singular possessive was born.
The French sagely managed to avoid getting the apostrophe mixed up with the possessive by sticking with the “of the” construction, as in “la plume de ma tante”: “the pen of my aunt” (i.e., my aunt’s pen).
We could save ourselves a lot of apostrophe grief by going back to “the horse of the king” and “the horses of the kings.”
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