"greengrocer's apostrophe" (was Re: Cam(pb)ell)

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Aug 4 17:45:24 UTC 2000

lynne murphy:

 While in the US last week, I read 'it's' for 'its' on printed Sam
 Adams promotional materials in TGI Fridays...  In my back-and-forth
 experience, catastrophic apostrophic use is thriving on both sides of
 the Atlantic and both sides of the equator.

possessive IT'S is entirely a different matter from the ordinary
greengrocer's apostrophe examples.  this spelling is so heavily
determined by very general principles of english spelling that even
careful writers who would never in their lives commit a greengrocer's
apostrophe still produce a certain number of possessive IT'Ses [yes, i
only did that to annoy; but how *should* i spell it?].

we've got a prenominal possessive consisting of a base nominal word
and an S marking the possessive.  massively, quite generally, such
words should - must - be spelled with an apostrophe.  any rational
person would want an apostrophe here too.  as it happens, the standard
spelling system makes an exception for definite personal pronouns
(even ONE'S and SOMEONE'S etc. have an apostrophe), for reasons that
aren't relevant here and wouldn't be known by ordinary people anyway,
and ITS is the *only* one of these that is both transparently
segmentable into subject pronoun plus S and usable prenominally. the
spelling of possessive ITS (versus KIT'S) should offend anyone who
craves system, generalizations, etc.  and it does.

i can argue for the semiotic utility of possessive 'S versus the
unpunctuated plural and verb form, but i can't defend possessive ITS,
the spelling of which runs just counter to good semiotic principles.
i'll continue to spell it without an apostrophe, just as i'll continue
to spell the verb LOSE, but i can't defend either of these spellings
on rational grounds, and i won't waste any time tut-tutting at people
who spell them "wrong".

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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