Wednesday, December 06, 2023

MLP: Barbarians 1, Apostrophe 0

| May 11, 2021 1:00 AM

Your Mrs. Language Person is in mourning.

Fellow language-lover and superior grammarian Mr. John Richards, that esteemed English champion of the abused apostrophe (poor wee thing), has gone to the Great Lexicon beyond the stars (no, it’s not star’s).

“(T)here lies proof that wit can never be defense enough against mortality.” (Aphra Behn)

And what a wit had he. When Richards created the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 on the heels of his journalism career, only he and his son were members. A properly placed apostrophe has so few modern defenders. Yet as the Wall Street Journal reported, soon the APS claimed more than 250 zealots. Both cash and endless, shameful examples of apostrophic misuse flooded in.

Until Richards gave up the fight, two years before the ghost.

Why? Upon politely — those English are so polite — attempting to correct a café advertising “coffee’s” for sale (mere plurals do not, Dear Reader, need that overworked apostrophe), the owner told him, “I think it looks better with an apostrophe anyway.”

To that Richards could only say, “The barbarians have won.”

While the concept is simple and the meaning significant — the difference between plurals (s) and possessives ('s), so few pay attention anymore that it hardly seems to matter. John, MLP feels your pain.

What, you care, Dear Reader? When should you use an apostrophe before an “s,” you ask?

O joy! Huzzah! It's (and we’ll get to its vs. it’s next time) quite straightforward. If the "s" shows ownership — as in "Sholeh's inane column" or "Kerri's masterpiece," use an apostrophe with the "s." If not, don't.

Let those overwrought apostrophes rest, if you please.

If the "s" instead transforms the one (singular) into more than one (plural) — as in "All Sholeh’s columns are awful" or "Nils likes tacos," no apostrophe is needed.

To review then, an apostrophe is only used for two reasons: (1) to indicate possession, such as Glen’s favorite pizza and Clint’s spoiled chickens (except “its” — more on that Thursday); and (2) to substitute for missing letters in a contraction.

An example of the latter is "don't." In that case the apostrophe stands in for the missing "o" in not; "do not" is shortened to "don't." As in don’t write two pizza’s. It’s (it is, another contraction) “pizzas.” Leave the apostrophe in peace to enjoy a slice.

Now, as you’ve (contraction alert: you have, apostrophe standing in for “h-a”) undoubtedly guessed if you’re still awake, the apostrophe isn't (another apostrophe substituting for “o”) yet fully explored.

Next time, an equally annoying column revisiting "its" and "it's." As in it’s such a shame the weary apostrophe has lost its best defender.

John Richards (1924-2021), R.I.P.

Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists (plural; no apostrophe, please!) for the Hagadone News Network. Contact them at

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