March 12, 2008


I'll get around to saying more about Barney Oliver's Modern English Misusage (SETI Press, 2001) -- the title pretty much tells you what kind of book it is -- but right now I'm going to reflect on a surprising misspelling in the book.  It comes in the section on possessive nouns and pronouns.  The background (p. 14):

... the apostrophal possessive is less frequently used with inanimate nouns ...  In many cases, the short apostrophal form [vs. the of-possessive] is possible, but sound it out and proceed with caution.

and then the fall from grace (p. 15):

Personal pronouns in the possessive case (ours, yours, theirs) do not require the apostrophe.  Nothing has been elided.  On the other hand, apostrophies are sometimes used to indicate unusual plurals ...

Before I take up apostrophies, I'll note some other oddities in this passage:

(1) The word apostrophal, which is a rare bird.  The OED2 says it's obsolete and rare, in fact unique in its files to a 1652 cite -- and then in reference to the figure of speech the apostrophe rather than to the punctuation mark the apostrophe.  (Thanks to Google, I can now add references to the "apostrophal genitive" and "the apostrophal form of the possessive case" in James Gurnhill's 1862 The Breeches Bible -- pp. 119 and 122, respectively.)  It's not in standard one-volume dictionaries.  I got 147 Google webhits (with dupes removed), but only a few of them are instances of apostrophal in Oliver's sense, and some of those look like jocular inventions.  The word is entirely comprehensible, of course -- just very unusual.

(2) Oliver's apparent assumption that the conventional written representation of English IS English, which would lead him to refer to the s-possessive as "the apostrophal possessive", as if the PUNCTUATION were its most significant aspect.  (In the Gurnhill book, such terminology makes sense, since Gurnhill was contrasting spellings of the s-possessive without -- the older variant -- and with an apostrophe.)

(3) The note that "nothing has been elided" in ours and the like.  That's an allusion to the idea that possessive s is a reduction of his: "There is some indication that the elided letters [yes, letters] were originally h and i." (p. 14)  But there's not much to recommend this idea; the modern s-possessive goes back to the -(e)s genitive case ending of Old English.  And in fact something HAS been elided in ours and the like: ours was oures (two syllables) in earlier English.

Oliver was right in thinking that the main use of the apostrophe is to indicate the location of material that in the course of history has been elided (though in pronunciation, with the spelling adjusted to reflect the change in pronunciation), but it has other uses, as in those "unusual plurals" he referred to, and some historical elisions are no longer indicated in the spelling: we no longer spell the once-innovative disyllabic (rather than trisyllabic) pronunciation for the past tense form of the verb BELIEVE as believ'd, for instance.  Trying to rationalize the uses of the apostrophe by reference to history doesn't make much sense.  Instead, there's just a list of conventions for the standard spelling of English.

But back to the spelling of the plural of apostrophe.  That would be apostrophes.  Where does apostrophies come from?

Digression: please don't write to accuse me of hypocrisy because I label a spelling as incorrect while "defending" non-standard syntactic and lexical choices.  I hope to post soon on the hypocrisy charge in general -- how can you "defend" non-standard usages while using standard variants yourself? -- but in the case of spelling things are a bit crisper.  There are advantages to having, for the most part, a single spelling for a word.

Note: "for the most part".  There are differences between British and American spellings  -- -our vs. -or, -ise vs. -ize, and so on -- and there are other cases where the choice between alternatives seems to me to be of no consequence: o.k., O.K., OK, etc.  In fact, though I advocate a reasonable adherence to standard spellings and deprecate non-standard spellings that would give almost any reader pause, I'm not ENRAGED by non-standard spellings that can't be misunderstood by a well-intentioned reader.  Rage is not an appropriate response.  Nor is writing off the errant speller as a total idiot.

So, in fact, I'm not at all enraged by apostrophies.  It's incorrect, but who could misunderstand it?  I bring it up only because it occurs in a book that aims to root out evil in English usage.

I'm a student of, among other things, errors/mistakes in language (of all kinds, and there are many kinds), which involves trying to figure out why people say/write the things they do.  In general, errors/mistakes aren't just random appearances in the production of language; there are explanations for why people "get things wrong".

So: where did apostrophies come from in Oliver's text (whether written by him or introduced by an editor)?

First observation: the text has apostrophe as the singular throughout.  What's notable is the juxtaposition of apostrophe and apostrophies.  As it turns out, you can google up a fair number of instances of apostrophies (most of them in contexts involving computers).  In a lot of these cases, it's singular apostrophe vs. plural apostrophies, as on this site with grammar advice:

By Brian Kerrigan

THE PROBLEM:  Knowing whether to put the apostrophe before or after the 's whether it is a noun or a pronoun.


Rule 1: Use control F (in Microsoft word) to search for all apostrophies.

This page uses apostrophe throughout, but apostrophes only in a quote from the Bedford Handbook.  Some other sites have both apostrophes and apostrophies.

And in some cases it's singular apostrophy vs. plural apostrophies, as in this query (reproduced here verbatim) on another advice site:


Ok, this has been bugging me long enough. In the sentence " I drove my car to joes house. " where exactly in the word joes does the apostrophy go? Every time I see a word like that the apostrophy is before the S no matter what context they are using the word. Last I knew, the apostrophy was there to take the place of a letter. So instead of joe is, one would write Joe's. But if I wanted to use my example setence, wouldn't the apostrophy go after the S?

Aha!  Now, THAT would make some sense.  To see where singular apostrophy might come from, think about how compound words are borrowed from Greek.  There are (at least) three classes:

(I) hippodrome, sophomore, monotreme, heliotrope, pheromone, ...

(II) catastrophe, hyperbole, apocope, calliope, ...

(III) homonymy, democracy, apostasy, monarchy, ...

Words in class I end in a consonant sound (with a "silent E" in the spelling), while those in classes II and III end with /i/, spelled as E in (II), as Y in (III).  This is remarkably difficult.

Please don't write to tell me that IF YOU ONLY KNEW THE HISTORY, you would be able to spell these words.  That's an outrageous idea: learning the history -- what the Greek originals were, which words came to English directly from Greek, which came from Greek via Latin, which came to us through French and when, which ones were re-shaped in the process and in what ways, etc. -- is a much harder task than simply memorizing the spellings.  The division of words into classes I-III in current English is just arbitrary, and this arbitrariness is what learners of the spelling system are confronted with.  To expect them to refer to the details of hundreds of years of complex linguistic history is ridiculous.

How, then, do you spell final /i/ in Greek-y compounds?  The weight of the evidence seems to lean towards Y, so you'd expect apostrophy. For which the plural would be apostrophies, using the default rules for English spelling.  There you are.

Then the spelling apostrophies gets transferred into other settings, even when the writer uses apostrophe as the singular.  Well, the pronunciation of apostrophies is straightforward, while to pronounce apostrophes correctly, you need to analyze it as containing apostrophe as a part.  Maybe some people think apostrophes looks funny.  Certainly, I found the past participle apostrophed funny-looking when I first encountered it, in a Chicago Tribune piece (2/24/08) by "Sean ODriscoll", "You might say it's the curse of the apostrophed", about the problems that can beset people with apostrophes (or hyphens, or spaces) in their family names.  (You can google up other examples of apostrophed.)

But so far as I can see, neither apostrophies nor apostrophy makes it into any of the standard dictionaries.

In any case, apostrophies is wrong, but it's not crazy, or random.  Nevertheless, it's entertaining that a book that rants against error in English can't quite get this spelling right.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 12, 2008 06:35 PM