A History of Possession

My students always struggle with apostrophe use. Indeed, it’s probably the number one writing — error? problem? nonstandard usage? — I see in my students’ writing.

My guess is that apostrophe usage is on the way out. I suspect a hundred years from now, English writers will not use apostrophes. And that’s okay. I’m not someone who’s like, “Oh no, English is devolving, it’s terrible, everyone is stupider now.” Language changes. That’s what’s so cool about it.

But I do like apostrophes. I think they make writing easier to understand. I’m sad they might be disappearing.

So here is a history of apostrophes.

First, how are apostrophes used in modern English writing?

  1. Contractions, words that are made up from a combination of two words. The contraction shows letters have been removed. I’m (I am), don’t (do not), we’re (we are) are common contractions.
  2. Possessives, words that show ownership. An apostrophe s is used for singular possessive nouns, and an s apostrophe is used for a plural possessive noun. “The boy’s room” is the room that belongs to one boy and “the boys’ room” is the room that belongs to several boys.

Second, what is grammatical case?

Case is the inflection (modification) of a word to show its function. Usually the end of the word changes to show case.

English doesn’t really have case any more. Generally Indo-European languages (of which English is one, as well as French, German, Russian, Hindi) have eight cases. Old English did. But modern English has three, nominative (the “noun is doing verb” case), oblique (the noun is not the subject case), and genitive (something belongs to the noun case).

In modern English, -‘s and -s’ show genitive case. But in Old English (the period from roughly 500-1100 CE), the noun ending was inflected to show genitive case. To write “the boy’s room,” Old English scribes would write, “the boyes room.” (Depending on the word and the case, possession might be shown with a different ending; I use -es for simplicity’s sake.)

As a side note, one had more freedom with word order in Old English. In modern English, we generally use subject-verb-object order, but Old English speakers and scribes had several more options, since meaning was largely based on word ending, not word order.

So. In the beginning, English speakers used a specific ending to show a word was possessive.

In 1066, William of Normandy invaded England and for the next 400 years, give or take, French became the language of the court and upper classes. English went underground and transformed, simplified. All of those cases disappeared.

Middle English (roughly 1100-1500 CE) was weird. Thanks to the Great Vowel Shift, everyone started pronouncing vowels differently (when, why, who? not clear, other than probably in the late 1300 or early 1400s). English adopted the “of” construction for possessive nouns (juice of fruit versus fruit juice).

Now that possession was shown by -es regardless of gender (Old English, like pretty much every other Indo-European language, had gender), which led to changes in the use of the words “his” and “her.” In Old English, for example, “his” was both the masculine and neutral third person pronoun and the plural of “his” was “hir” (well, hira).

Finally, Middle English presented speakers and writers with one more conundrum: plurals were now marked with -s or -es as well. For a time, (some) English used -en, hence oxen and children, but -en was replaced with -es. (Though Shakespeare uses shoe-en in Hamlet. My annotated Hamlets say that Shakespeare’s audience would have heard this as an anachronism. Still, they likely would have understood it.) And a few Old English plurals, with their changed vowels, have stayed with us: feet, teeth.

In the early 1500s, French publisher Geoffroy Tory, among much else, conceived of the apostrophe. Soon its use was adopted by English writers. English speakers love to elide (omit or slur their sounds), so the apostrophe showed where a sound had disappeared (I’m for I am, lov’d for love-ed). But they also used the apostrophe for plural nouns, especially foreign words.

Even so, usage did not become standardized until the 1700s.

To throw another wrench in to the situation, the apostrophe s might not be so much a marking of case but a clitic, a morpheme (grammatical unit) that has the characteristics of a word but relies on another word. This is because the apostrophe a s can be attached to a phrase, not just a word. In “my upstairs neighbor’s dog” the —’s is attached to the entire phrase “my upstairs neighbor.” Or “my friend in Nebraska’s dress;” the —’s is attached to the phrase (friend in Nebraska) not the actual possessor (friend).

The apostrophe in a contraction like don’t might also be a clitic, but a separate one. Or it might be an affix (a morpheme that’s a prefix or suffix, like un- or -ness).

Thinking about the cases in Old English makes my head swim a bit, but perhaps the grammar isn’t much more complicated than our modern grammar.

So the history suggests that English writers have always struggled with plurals and possessive, and we have invented multiple ways to get the idea of ownership across. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that current writers still struggle with the “rules.”

That I was taught a certain way biases me; the way I was taught is the correct way. Never mind the centuries that might say otherwise.