Our Troubled System for Forming Possessives


Throughout history, many people have tried to force changes to the English language.

Sometimes they crusade against a misuse or a perceived misuse, like the self-appointed Wikipedia editor who has changed more than 47,000 instances of "comprised of" to "composed of" in Wikipedia articles. Other times they try to fix what they perceive as an error in the language, like its lack of a gender-neutral pronoun, for which people have proposed over 100 suggestions.

It never makes a difference. "Comprised of" continues to march toward respectability at roughly the same pace it was before, the plural pronoun "they" continues to gain slow acceptance as a singular in sentences like Every visitor should make note of where they parked.

But in more candid moments, I'll confess that I can relate. Sometimes it's just not easy to let go of language "problems" -- you just want to do something.

If it were possible to forcibly do anything to the language, my personal crusade would begin and end with how we form possessives: The whole apostrophe-plus-S thing is, in my opinion, a catastrophe.

For one thing, S is the same letter we use to form plurals. One cat, two cats. So possessive cat's is far from ideal.

For another, the rules are inconsistent. You use an S after the apostrophe to form the possessive of most singular nouns: the cat's tail. But you don't add an S when you make a possessive out of most plurals: the cats' tails.

You could argue that that system makes sense because there's already an S there. But some plurals don't end in S: The children's menu. Some singulars do end in S: James's car/James' car. (I wrote that two different ways because both are correct. In Chicago style,  it's James's car. In AP style it's James' car. (And there are more exceptions to the rules that I won't even get into.)

So the rules for forming plural possessives are a mess.

Finally, the apostrophe combined with S just happens to be the exact same way we create the most common contraction in English: the contracted form of the verb "is": He's a nice guy. The cat's outside. Mike's here.

Is it any wonder people screw up apostrophes so often?

If I had to propose a solution, I'd say to use some completely unrelated syllable to form the possessive -- preferably one that both begins and ends with a consonant, like "dat": I borrowed Mikedat car. Did you meet Suedat husband? Can we see the childrendat menu?

Of course, there could be some terrible flaw in this plan that I'm not seeing -- that's so often the case. But it doesn't matter because, as history will prove, no one cares about Junedat idea anyway.

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