Post Is Unrelated

I am something of a language nerd, and I enjoy reading articles written by other language nerds about language-related nerdery.

This morning, I ran across a good one (link to follow here) explaining where to put apostrophes in familial names on holiday cards (the short answer: don’t).   The author wondered about the source of our confusion about the use of apostrophes, but didn’t propose a hypothesis.

I’m an overachiever, so I have two.

First, many of us don’t read much — or, rather, we read text messages, news blurbs, forums, and blogs, but we spend a lot less time with texts edited by editors who know how to use apostrophes.  

We mostly encounter apostrophes in contexts in which their use is as likely to be incorrect as it is to be correct (around here, I’d argue that they’re actually more likely to be used incorrectly, but bias might be skewing my perceptions).  Seriously, drive by a strip mall and check for stray apostrophes, and chances are good that you’ll find plenty(1).

In short, we’re missing the substrate of experience that would allow us to confidently infer whether and where an apostrophe is appropriate.

Second, and much more importantly, we’re battling uphill against the power of idiom and homonym (a battle that can be won, potentially, by reading a whole lot, which helps to overcome the ambiguity of spoken English as it relates to written English).

Case in point: when we say we’re going to visit someone, we often do it using a truncated version of the phrase, “We’re going to the So-and-sos’ house” – we say, “We’re going to the So-and-so’s.”  

The context remains possessive (“I’ll be at Dave’s if you need me,” rather than, “I’ll be at Daves if…”).   This trips us up when we try to refer to our families using a plural proper name.

Because the plural and possessive forms of “So-and-so” sound alike, we forget that they’re spelled differently (q.v. other commonly misused homonyms: “too, to, two,” “they’re, there, their,” “its, it’s”).   Because we don’t have a good “feel” for the rules that govern the use of apostrophes, we choose the most familiar form – which, unfortunately, is also the wrong form.

In short, we treat family names as if they are being used within the context of a familiar possessive phrase (“The Dawsons’ house”) but apply the more familiar singular possessive (“The Dawson’s…”) rather than the less familiar plural possessive (“The Dawsons’…”).

In fact, when we say, “Happy Chanukah from the Singers,” we’re not using a possessive sense at all.

Fortunately, as with many of the arbitrary rules of English grammar, there are shortcuts to correct usage.  

The easiest way to remember whether to employ an apostrophe in a greeting is to swap out the family name (which is plural) for a personal name (which isn’t) that doesn’t end in ‘s.’   If you’re already a bit confused, names that end in ‘s’ only muddy the water.

Exchange “Good Yule from the Cunninghams” for “Good Yule from Pat.”  Make note of whether an apostrophe was required (it wasn’t).  Treat the plural name accordingly even if it ends in ‘s’  – it’s still not possessive in this context.  (For names that end in ‘s,’ just add ‘-es’ to the end: Jameses, Hearknesses, etc.)

If you’re still in doubt, of course, it’s also entirely kosher to simply write out, “Happy Holidays from the James Family.”

So that’s that.   My hypothesis, with a bit of application thrown in for good measure.

…And, yes, I know I split an infinitive back there.   The rule about not splitting them derives from a misunderstanding of the origins of the English language, contributes nothing to meaning, and, I am happy to say, is falling by the wayside thanks in no small part to the original Star Trek.

I  realize this is basically way off-topic.  I promise that I shall return to blogging about ballet, bikes, and bipolar disorder soon.


  1. I suspect that this only amplifies the problem. Business names do crazy things with apostrophes — take, for example, Chili’s. Is it “The place that belongs to Chili?” Or is it “We’re trying to name our restaurant after that key ingredient associated with Tex-Mex cuisine, Chilis?” Out in the world, you’re likely to encounter a million places with names like “Tinks” or “HotWang’s,” and it’s generally pretty unclear whether the person who name the business is simply unschooled in the correct use of apostrophes or is attempting to employ some kind of play on words (you can be pretty sure that when a business is called something like “Johnsons” or “Changs,” but isn’t actually marketing human beings, an apostrophe has been omitted). Since business names are plagued with bad puns, the context gets even muddier. It makes one long for the strictures of a language such as French or Japanese, in which nobody asks questions like these, because possessives aren’t rendered using apostrophes in the first place.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2014/11/26, in life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The Lite Rider

    Love, love LOVE this entry. I was an English major in college – though all things grammar were not my strong suit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: