Friday, December 7, 2012

Apostrophe Blues

Lately, I've been seeing more misused apostrophes than I can ever remember seeing before.  Yesterday, I drove past a store called "Two Cousin's Beauty Supply" (yes, a typo is on the awning, which has all of four words on it).  Today, in my little Kent State alumni magazine, an article has a reference to a married couple as "The Mayfield's".

Yikes!  I'm seeing this all the time.  Can't people afford proofreaders anymore?

I can sympathize.  I can't afford a proofreader either.  Fortunately, I'm pretty good at proofreading, but when one proofs one's own work, blind spots are hard to avoid since one has seen the material too many times already.

The issue isn't actually a big deal either.  It's unlikely someone will really get confused with a needless apostrophe in a plural.  People already do it all the time with numerals such as "1980's" (though, for the record, "1980s" looks so much better).  In spoken language, no apostrophe exists so "cousins" and "cousin's" sounds exactly the same.

Still, it's a bit worrisome when people mix up plurals and possessives and just sprinkle apostrophes randomly across their prose like shredded cheese across pasta.  Perhaps people don't read much any more and don't pick this written convention up.  According to David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, the apostrophe was once used for plurals like "cousin's" at one point (the example he cites is "comma's") and has been a source of confusion since being introduced into English in the 16th century.

For the record though, standard usage in English today would drop the apostrophe in most plurals (There are some exceptions such as the "1980's" example mentioned above, but actually it can almost always be avoided in a plural without much confusion), so "cousin's" should be "cousins'" (assuming the beauty supplies store's name is meant to be a plural possessive; if the "two cousins" is meant as an adjective modifying "beauty supplies" then no apostrophe is needed at all) and "Mayfield's" should be "Mayfields".  Instead, the apostrophe should be used for possessives such as "my cousin's shampoo" or "The Mayfields' store".

Ah!  The apostrophe's plight makes me weep for so many lost apostrophes! 

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