Having fallen asleep over a book containing lots of quotations from letters and what-not from the seventeenth century (Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel; which I highly recommend), I half-woke up several hours later and, for some reason, couldn't stop pondering on the seemingly ubiquitous non-use of apostrophes therein. Some vaguely-remembered advice from an English Language teacher on the subject of writing which was meant to be read aloud versus writing which wasn't, kind of bubbled to the surface. When confronted with a sentence containing many "s" endings, he told us, if the sentence is to be read aloud, be sure that there's no possible confusion between possessives, plurals and words which merely happen to end with the letter.
"James's hamsters' wheels' treads are loose," for instance, obviously—when we can see it written down—refers to the state of the treads of more than one wheel which more than one hamster has the use of. Now try reading it aloud…
I also got to wondering why we need the possessive apostrophe. After all, we manage well enough without it when speaking ("The treads of the wheels belonging to James's hamsters," or possibly "James's hamsters's wheels's treads…," which doesn't sound horribly wrong, even if it looks it), and our most basic possessives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) don't even take one in the first place, even where they end in "s." In fact, a quirk of grammar leads to them being classed as adjectives rather than pronouns, when possessive, which does make sense since they modify a noun. The quirk lies in the fact that we only apply this change of class to personal pronouns (me, you, it, etc), with the possessive form of any other noun or pronoun still being, for some reason, classed as a noun or pronoun.
So, anyway, giving up on sleep, I got up, got coffee and got googling on the history of the possessive apostrophe. And it turns out that, just like in "can't" for "cannot," the apostrophe in possessives originally denoted a dropped syllable. According to this article, "In Old English, long before the apostrophe came into use, the possessive ending for most nouns was es." They use the example "John's house," which would, until, apparently, some time in the sixteenth century, have been written and pronounced "Johnes house." A pronunciation we still employ today, in fact, when faced with a word already ending in "s," like my example, "James's."
Apparently, though, the change in pronunciation spread through the population much quicker than the then-new-fangled method of marking dropped syllables with an apostrophe, since there are many examples from the seventeenth where, for example, "Gods" not "Godes," is used as, from context, a possessive. Rather amusingly, the author of the article I linked above uses a line ("You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.") from Love's Labours Lost to show that it was used by some people, at least, as early as 1588—which fact would seem to have passed by the printers of the first quarto, ten years later, who used the title Loves Labors Lost. Well, okay, it amused me anyway.
And so, in an effort to make some kind of point from all this pointless rambling, here's a couple of thoughts.
Next time you grit your teeth when someone uses "it's" for "its," just pause a moment. It's not that they're actually wrong; just that they're being more consistent than the whole of the rest of the English-writing world.
And, as we all know, language mutates. I wonder if, now that more than ever before, people are regularly communicating in writing, the use of the possessive apostrophe will gradually drop from use. Or has it, via the medium of print, become so entrenched by use and tradition that, though largely unneeded, it'll remain in use forever?
Oh and one more thing. According to The Fount Of All Knowledge™, "apostrophe followed by s was often used to mark a plural." So the oft-derided "greengrocer's apostrophe" isn't so much wrong as merely four or five hundred years out of date!
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