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Out at a restaurant? Want to feel falsely superior to your fellow diners? Ask leading questions about the owners of restaurants until you goad someone into saying restauranteur. Don’t worry; if you’re persistent enough someone’s bound to say it. Then — and this is where you get to indulge your inner blowhard — show the fool who said restauranteur up by pointing out that it’s properly restaurateur.

The backstory to this is pretty cute. Restaurant is derived from the substantive use of the Latin present participle restaurer, which means “to restore”. So restaurant originally came from something like “place of restoration”, and the purveyor of this restoration was a “restorer” (restaurateur), not a “restaurant-er”.  It’s sort of like how you have messenger and message, but not *messenge.

This was news to me when I read about it yesterday, but it seems that it’s actually fairly well-known. Google shows 3 million hits for restaurateur and only 250,000 for restauranteur, and if you search for the latter it suggests that you might really mean the former. In American English at least, restauranteur, restaurateur, and restauranter all seem pretty acceptable.  But if you want to be properly safe, I’d advise you use the proper, older term restaurateur.

[Note: Please, please don't do this.  If you think a good thing to do in a social situation is to correct people's grammar, I assure you that you are mistaken.]

Let’s start the joy of apostrophication by forming the possessives of singular nouns! (Of course, the exclamation point is spurious — there is nothing exciting about forming possessives.) First off, there’re three cases that are uncontroversial:

singular nouns not ending in an /s/- or /z/-sound: add ‘s
one fish’s lair – the box’s contents – everybody else’s indignation

plural nouns ending in an /s/- or /z/-sound: add
The Smiths’ misery – the proposals’ results – some boxes’ lids

plural nouns not ending in an /s/- or /z/- sound: add ‘s
laymen’s opinions – geese’s eggs – two fish’s habitats

Snorefest! Let’s get our hands dirty with some controversial possessives! Is it the princess’s diadem or the princess’ diadem? Is Oliver Twist Dickens’s character or Dickens’ character? Was President McKinley Leon Czolgosz’s victim or Leon Czolgosz’ victim? And, lastly, are the Israelites Moses’s or Moses’ people? Let’s check in with some grammarians:

(1) princess’ – Dickens’ – Czolgosz’ – Moses’: a commonly-held belief
(2) princess’s – Dickens’ – Czolgosz’ – Moses’: On the Mark Writing
(3) princess’s – Dickens’s – Czolgosz’ – Moses’: Harold Kolb, James Cochrane, et al
(4) princess’s – Dickens’s – Czolgosz’s – Moses’: Strunk (& White)
(5) princess’s – Dickens’s – Czolgosz’s – Moses’s: Patricia O’Conner

These choices can be translated into the following possible rules for singular possessives:

(1) use ‘s except for nouns ending in s/z
(2) use ‘s except for names ending in s/z
(3) use ‘s except for names where “adding ‘s would make pronunciation difficult” [Brief English Handbook, 292]
(4) use ‘s except for ancient names ending in s/z
(5) use ‘s for all singular nouns

To me, all of these rules are relatively reasonable, though I lean toward (3) and (5) as the best choices. (1) is weird because one pronounces the possessive of princess with the extra -iz sound, so why not write it? (2) is weird for a similar reason; you say Dickens-iz, not just Dickens. (4) requires one to include the time-period of a name, which seems sort of a silly criterion (so you’d have Jesus’ miracles but Jesús’s car), and this probably wouldn’t accurately reflect the phonology of the word. As a result, I think you’re best served to choose between (3) and (5). (3) has the difficulty of being subject to a subjective condition, but generally reflects pronunciation. (5) has the advantage of combining two rules into one. I learned rule (5) when I was a kid, and it’s the one I personally use. However, if you’re worried about how your writing will be perceived by grammar snobs, go with (3). Most of the grammar books I read through pick it. But don’t, unless you pride yourself on being unreasonable, correct someone who handles possessives of singular nouns ending in -s differently from you.

Next up on the apostrophe parade: Possessives for abbreviations!

Summary: The possessive of singular nouns ending in -s is contested. I advise adding ‘s to all of them or at least to those where the suffix doesn’t make it too hard to pronounce. But importantly, there’s some prescriptivist who’ll back up almost any choice of ‘s or , so don’t complain too much about other people’s choices.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

Apostrophes are notorious for arousing the ire of grammar fundamentalists. Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame was driven so mad by the advertisements for Two Weeks Notice that she posted her own apostrophes on posters to make it Two Weeks’ Notice. (I personally disagree that an apostrophe is necessary there, but I’ll address that later once I have a chance to research it.) While no one knows exactly where prescriptivists such fervent rage from, nor how they manage to contain so much rage without the anger ripping their bodies to shreds, they do have some excuse for being so uppity about apostrophes. The apostrophe is misused extensively; more so, perhaps, than any other punctuation mark. For example, there’s the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, where one uses ‘s to pluralize a noun (e.g., cucumber’s are on sale). Another common mistake is forming possessives of plural nouns that don’t end in s by adding s’ (e.g., the mens’ room is on the left). And of course there’s all the confusion about your/you’re and their/there/they’re. Such problems are railed upon at length on the Internet, spawning photo galleries heaped upon photo galleries of awful apostrophal miscues, and all of these mistakes are truly mistakes.

Unfortunately, not everything about apostrophe usage is so cut-and-dried. Take, for instance, the case of dreamy Prince William. He is the son of Prince Charles. But does that make him Prince Charles’ son or Prince Charles’s son? Now let’s say that at some point Prince William pulls an Edward VIII and leaves behind the royal life for the woman he loves. Piecing together a living in this hardscrabble world, he learns to fix appliances and opens a TV repair store. What does his banner read? TVs fixed while you wait? Or TV’s fixed while you wait? Or T.V.’s? Or T.V.s? Regrettably, poor Prince William will be criticized regardless of his choice, as various sources claim that each of these possibilities is the one, true, and correct choice.

So over the next few days, I’m going to look at various situations where an apostrophe is called for and try to explain what I think is the best course of action in each case, and why. Some of it will be prescriptive (with justifications) and some of it will be a defense against other people’s (not peoples’) misguided prescriptions. Hopefully it’ll help. In the meantime, let me know if there’s any point of apostrophe usage you’d like to know about (or if there’s anything you think you know that might not be so).

The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

James Cochrane is a really angry person. See, the world is full of these people that take his language and do things with it that he doesn’t like. This riled him so much that he went out and wrote a book (Between You and I, 2003) listing all the ways common mushmouths hurt his language, in alphabetical order, and then pointing out how you are an imbecile if you do these things. I’ve only been able to put up with so much of him excoriating me for saying things like “It feels like I’m falling in love”, so, in fairness, it’s possible he lightens up after the Cs. But here’s a quick rundown of some of his feelings about users of English, from the A through C sections:

“To say something like ‘as far as United’s chances’ … is lazy and uneducated.” (17)
“It is hard to find a reason for its not being used … other than sheer stupidity.” (21)
“It is not at all good English to be bored of something.” (22)
“Educated readers will not need to be told that could of represents an illiterate mishearing…” (31)

Sadly, Cochrane’s book does not address the distressing tendency among pigheaded authors to misuse the word educated. (I skipped ahead to the E section just to make sure.) Educated, as defined by the OED, means “That has received education, mental or physical; instructed, trained, etc.”. The meaning intended by Cochrane in his quote about could of is in fact that of the word well-educated or perhaps the phrase properly educated; he is attempting to distinguish between those (like him) who learned how to be a pedant and those (like the rest of us) who learned how not to be a jerk.

The more I think about this, the angrier I get. I am aware that using educated to mean well-educated is well-established by common usage by the hoity-toity set. But these same people are the ones who rail against how common usage is making as and like interchangeable, or about how common usage permits disinterested both as indifferent and impartial. The difference is that it’s poor, under-educated people who make the latter mistakes. But, Mr. Cochrane, I submit to you that you are no better than the masses whose educations you derisively dismiss as inconsequential. And I just want to suggest that, in your own words, “It is hard to find a reason for [well-educated] not being used … other than sheer stupidity.”

Cochrane has some other overly harsh opinions that I hope to comment upon in the near future. However, I just can’t take his martyrdom seriously right now, and I feel this way about all the others who anoint themselves educated and anoint the rest of us fools. It is a very fine line between language change and language crime, and unfortunately, some ill-informed judges hold the court.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.

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