The Weirdness of the English language 1: Possessive Apostrophes

Let’s be honest: the English language doesn’t make a lot of sense most of the time. Every rule has exceptions and we have irregular verbs coming out of our ears. We could spend hours talking about pronunciation alone. In fact, Gerard Nolst Trenite wrote a rather long poem about the subject.

My favorite class in college was History of the English language. Suddenly, all the rules and exceptions we were taught made a little more sense. What I love the most is that, over time, language drifts. Words shorten and sounds soften. “K” turns to “g” or “t” turns to “d.” Why does drift happen? People. Well, people and laziness.

The masters of any language are those who use it. As the general public adopts shortening of words or changes in pronunciation, the language changes. That’s why I’m not one of those people who gets annoyed at the changes in the pronunciation of words or general forgetting of certain grammatical rules (Just ax me).

Today’s example is the possessive apostrophe. In my favorite class, I learned that in Middle English, it wasn’t uncommon to see formations like this: “John his book” or “Mary her book,” “Johnes book,” or “Maryes book.” Later, these phrases would be represented by “John’s book” or “Mary’s book.” Now, I don’t want to debate whether the apostrophe replaces the “his” or the “e.” The point is that people started using the apostrophe and it stuck.

So, because the somewhat arbitrary decisions of various printers to add an apostrophe became a general usage, your English teachers expect you to add one. Now, I don’t recommend using that as excuse to be lazy. Thanks to the standardization of grammar and spelling with the development of dictionaries, and especially due to the standardization of education in the nation, there is no longer the same flexibility of written language.

If we ever revise dictionaries and grammar rules, it’ll be exciting to see how we have changed the English language beyond adding words like “lol” to the dictionary. So, I hope you feel more informed and you’ll remember to add the apostrophe every time!