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Some short time ago, I stumbled upon a delightful blog known as the ragbag, which I quickly subscribed to after reading about five posts, in no small part because reading it reminds me of the sort of strange conversations I used to have in college with my suitemate and fellow mathemagician. (One of the more memorable of these conversations took place in a physics lecture hall immediately prior to a talk by some famous mathematical physicist, and revolved primarily around my new electric green jacket, which, as a welder’s jacket, happened to be flame-retardant — a fact whose veracity I had confirmed the night before by burning a small hole in the armpit and watching as the flame did not spread. As the conversation grew more intense, covering the potential range of uses of a jacket that would not immediately combust, the fellow seated in front of us turned around and stared at us a moment, almost as though he thought we were unbalanced. That fellow was John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame.)

A recent ragbag post about the first Gordon Bennet Balloon Cup, the world’s oldest dirigible race, led me to his less-recent but still-more-fascinating post about an 1808 duel in which the dueling weapons were blunderbusses and the duelists were two thousand feet above the ground in separate hot-air balloons. The winner successfully shot down the other’s balloon, smashing his foe to the ground in a manner that, while perhaps needlessly brutal, was undeniably stylish. My interest in further details led over to Wikipedia, where by turns I moved from the code duello to deloping to that most famous of duels featured in a “got milk?” commercial, the Burr-Hamilton throwdown.  (By the way, Wikipedia notes that Hamilton may have pushed the duel as a strange suicide plot that would cost his life but also utterly destroy Burr’s.  Sure enough, the duel did lead to then-Vice-President Burr’s fall out of politics and his eventual exile.)

Seeing as I had some looming deadlines, I couldn’t just stop at Burr & Hamilton. I pressed onward through early American history to Burr’s treason, secession attempts, John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Bloody Kansas, and finally, to the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks.

The Sumner-Brooks affair, as it’s genteely called, took place in 1856.  You might remember it from AP U.S. History, where it gets substantial discussion because it captures the zeitgeist of the immediately pre-Civil War period and also features a guy getting walloped with a cane. Charles Sumner was a senator from Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist who delivered a three-hour long and at times personally insulting speech on the floor of Congress lambasting the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors. (This was the act that overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska, and instead allowed slavery in those territories if the voters approved.) A few days later, Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian representative and goatee enthusiast, took umbrage with Sumner’s insults of the act’s authors, one of whom happened to be his uncle. Brooks approached Sumner in a mostly deserted Senate chamber, informed him that certain portions of the speech did not sit well with him, and proceeded to whale mercilessly on Sumner’s head with a cane, stopping only once the cane broke. Senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid were met by another South Carolinian representative, Laurence Keitt, who pointed a pistol at them and shouted “Let them be!” Sumner became a hero in the North, and Brooks a hero in the South. Some other things happened thereafter, something about a Civil War, emancipation, etc., but I have no idea about the details of all that because when we covered those parts of American history in class, I was too busy thinking about duels, canings, and the Whiskey Rebellion.

There’s a famous political cartoon of the Brooks-Sumner affair, one that I’ve known for years and could still sketch from memory; you’ll see it below. But there was one thing about the cartoon that I hadn’t noticed until I looked at it this time.

Yes, there it is, in the caption, a rogue apostrophe sneaking into a plural! A little reminder that apostrophe misuse isn’t new. (And goes back considerably further than 1984.) And it’s not just some private correspondence in which this error occurs; this was a lithograph intended for widespread distribution. Rather amazing, huh? So give the next apostrophe misuser you encounter a break; they just might be the next John L. Magee.

Hopefully this will console some of you prescriptivists who see the misuse of apostrophes to mark plurals as a sign of our society’s descent into barbarism. We might misuse our apostrophes, but at least we don’t try to bash a sitting Senator’s brains in for arguing that slavery is bad! It’s further evidence that societal progress and grammar mistakes are not tied together! In fact, maybe it’s our increased misuse of apostrophes that makes us the enlightened society we are today! Brazenly misuse enough apostrophe’s, and maybe gay couple’s will be treated fairly, everyone will get health care, war’s will end! Just don’t get your hope’s up.

The orbit of the Earth being what it is, September 24th has come around again.  September 24th, for those of you who don’t have a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events lying around, is National Punctuation Day.  But can I be honest with you?  I just can’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, I think it’s a great invention.  Like rechargeable batteries.  But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation.  I’ve tried to, I really have.  I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport.  I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.

I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech.  Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions.  Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea.  Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.

This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead.  Now we have hybrid punctuation that can either mark timing or serve as syntactic separators, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English.  Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent.  Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition?  If there is, it’s very slight.  So too with you’re and your. or even

(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.

Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial.  “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine.   The ones that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial.  One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.”  Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”.  The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British.  What is there to argue?  I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants.  Who’s wrong?

All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.  Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down.  Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore.  I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences.  Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good.  The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.

So to return to my original point, the 600-odd words above notwithstanding, a day for punctuation just doesn’t excite me much.  As Vampire Weekend so deftly put it, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

[By the way, goofy over at bradshaw of the future always brings out his A-game for National Punctuation Day, and this year is no exception.  Go read it.  Now.]

Lest anyone think that it’s only since the invention of texting or the Internet that people confuse it’s and its, I just wanted to offer some evidence that it’s not. It comes in the form of an old TV idiom, the spinning newspaper:


This mistake graces the first few seconds of the music video for John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song”, which I hadn’t heard before last week but now have become completely infatuated with. The spinning newspaper editor, no doubt a bit addled from typesetting on a rotating headline, put in an apostrophe that doesn’t belong, using it’s when its is called for! (It’s also arguable that there ought to be an apostrophe after the s in workers, but I don’t find that strictly necessary because Mine Workers Strike could be a complex compound noun in the context of a headline.)

Here we’ve got an example of the its-it’s mistake from 1984, when the Internet was still ARPANET, and texting and instant messaging were unheard of, so it seems unfair to blame the modern state of it(‘)s confusion simply on the profusion of quick electronic communication. But, you might argue, weren’t there beepers and pagers around then? Couldn’t they, as stepping-stones toward full-blown texting, have laid the seeds of apostrophal destruction that are now bearing fruit? I don’t know, because Wikipedia didn’t make it obvious to me when the first pager became available in the commercial market, and information that’s not in Wikipedia isn’t really worth knowing. Maybe John Mellencamp’s 1984 newspaper gaffe was already due to the insidious influence of digital communication. But turns out that it actually goes even farther back, to the very inception of possessive its in the sixteenth century.

Of course, no one should be surprised that its-it’s confusion should predate modern speedy communication.  As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, it(‘)s first appeared in the sixteenth century as the combination of it and the genitive case marker ‘s, and it was “at first commonly written it’s“.  According to the OED, this spelling died out in the early nineteenth century, although Google Books reveals that attestations of possessive it’s continue from that point through to the modern day, albeit less commonly than in its heady early days.  Somewhere along the line, possessive it’s began to be regarded as the dispreferred form, and then later the grammatically incorrect form.

[Drifting off-topic, I loved the old archetypes that the kid adopts in the video: the miner with the head-mounted lamp, the butcher with the traditional apron/bowtie combo, the farmer dressed in flannel and overalls. They reminded me of the noble images of the workingman that I was raised with, the images I had as a child of millhunks and Rosie the Riveters, who worked in mines and mills and factories and returned home grimy and greasy and scarred. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m part of the last generation for whom these images aren’t terribly outdated. Or perhaps they’re out of date even within my generation; when I mentioned this idea to my girlfriend, she was surprised to learn that there were still operating mines in the U.S. Has a new modern image of the little guy displaced these old archetypes? Or have we lost a part of our collective soul with nothing to fill its void? And if I’m this nostalgic now, what will happen when I actually reach an age when nostalgia is justifiable?]

Summary: Don’t be too surprised that people use it’s when they ought to use itsit’s used to be the correct form, and it never completely died out, even after its became the grammatically correct choice for possession.

It seems that there is a group of mistaken prescriptivists who insist that you cannot use the ‘s possessive with inanimate objects. One argues that the ‘s possessive grants human qualities to the inanimate object that it surely does not deserve. This may sound familiar; I discussed a similar (if reversed) argument a few months ago that using that in a relative clause that refers to a person is somehow de-humanizing and surely at least highly indecorous, if not outright illiterate. Others just state as fact that inanimates and ‘s possessives are a Jet and a Shark; never the twain should meet. At first blush, the rule might seem reasonable:

(1a) I had the time of my life last weekend!
(1b) *I had my life’s time last weekend!

(2a) I spent the weekend painting the side of the house magenta!
(2b) *My wife has just informed me that I’m spending next weekend re-painting the house’s side white.

But I’m going to argue that the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b) is epiphenomenal. First, note that (1a)’s time of my life is an idiom. It’s rare that you can change the form of an idiom and retain its idiomatic meaning. For instance:

(3) *That new record album is the meow of the cat!

That’s nonsense, unless the album literally contained caterwauling. But if you switch in the cat’s meow, suddenly it’s comprehensible — if a bit dated. So (1b) doesn’t sound bad because it’s got an inanimate with ‘s; it sounds bad because you’ve botched the idiom. As for (2b), I agree it is bad, and it’s bad because it is an inanimate object possessing an inalienable part. But even that’s not always a problem. The extreme southwestern tip of Great Britain is called “Land’s End“, so-named at least back to 1769; the phrase itself has been used generally since at least 1400, according to the OED. Similarly, there’s a hotel called The Cliff’s Edge in Hawaii.

In general, aside from idiomatic avoidance and a few special situations, this rule is rubbish. The Gregg Reference Manual wants you to think that there is something wrong with saying the terminal’s lower level, or its edge, or leaf’s color but I can’t see it:

(4a) […] you see it’s just people trying to survive,” he said yesterday, sipping coffee in the terminal’s lower level […]
(4b) […] bring the hoe in a direction perpendicularly to its edge […] (from 1787, by the way)
(4c) Three substances contribute to a leaf’s color

Summary: In the case of inanimate possessors using ‘s, there’s historical usage of such phrases, there’re modern attestations, there’re idioms with it. There simply isn’t any evidence that there is or ever was a rule of English saying that inanimate objects cannot take an ‘s possessive.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

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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.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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