APOSTROPHIC GENDER BIAS?

English teachers at every level, from pre-k to doctorate, watch with dismay (too weak! Horror?) as the apostrophe goes the way of the –whatever endangered species you are currently supporting with a tax-credited contribution.

 The poor mark causes such confusion that some (http://www.killtheapostrophe.com/; http://grammar.about.com/b/2007/05/31/the-campaign-to-abolish-the-apostrophe.htm)   have suggested that it be eliminated entirely to avoid chaos and, dare I say, guilt. Common eruptions of both arise when one is forced to make a plural, e.g. “tomato’s” or “Honda’s.” Or perhaps when one has to indicate ownership, e.g. “it’s” or “their’s.” All of these are wrong.

 The simplest solution from the old school was memorization but I prefer explanation. Everyone within the sound/sight of my voice/text can avoid the problem of the apostrophe by remembering one simple fact:

— the apostrophe is a mark that stands in for/takes the place of one or more missing letters–

 Here is an example. If I want to show that Walter owns a car, I can write “Walter’s car.” The reason I can do this is that the apostrophe stands in for the letters “hi” in the word “his.” The complete un-apostrophed construction is “Walter his car.” Similarly, but on the surface, contradictorily to our notion that apostrophes always make possession clear, “it’s about time” doesn’t mean “it his about time” but “it IS about time.”

 So, for another example, if you want to talk about the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, you would write “the Constitution’s Second Amendment establishes the right to bear arms” and you would be really saying “the Constitution its Second Amendment….” Here the apostrophe stands in for the “it” in “its.”

 [The trick with apostrophes is to know what letters are being substituted for. That is why, for instance, making the plural of “Honda” by adding an apostrophe and an s makes no meaning—in the construction “seven Honda’s” nothing is being substituted for; something (the apostrophe) is just being added for no good reason.]

 But you may well ask, could it not be that “the Constitution’s” might be read as “the Constitution his,” with the apostrophe standing in for the “hi” in “his”? Well, no, since the Constitution has no gender.  Unlike nouns in other Western languages, English nouns don’t carry formal gender identities. We use pronouns: “he,” “she,” “it” when we want to do that. The assignment is usually pretty arbitrary. But with apostrophes you can only choose between the male gender and the ungendered: “his” or “its”—never “her.” You can’t write “Linda’r car” and expect folks to understand you mean “Linda her car.”

 So, what’s (what is) up with that? Who OK’d (OKed) this gendered decision? No one knows, it seems, and aside from your reporter here, no one has much considered it. But it is, nevertheless, the case that English denies, in grammar, the capacity of female nouns to show possession except in the presence of a male construction.

 Here is my proposition: I think the historicized basis for this rule should be pretty clear. It was not until the 19th-cetury in English speaking countries that women could inherit property exclusive of male oversight, either by male relative or guardian. See, for example, the struggle over inheritance in “Downton Abbey” as Lady Mary’s share of the estate is seems up for grabs. By the time this situation was changed by the Married Women’s (ironic!) Property Act of 1870 [except for the peerage], the grammar rules covering the use of the apostrophe were long since fixed.

 Therefore, what we have is a grammar “rule “ (unlike the French, we have no academy that codifies such rules; we are fundamentally usage-driven speakers and writers in English) that reflects the condition of women under property law when the usage began to evolve, sometime prior to the 14th century.

 I’ll (I will) close now as my wife’r (wife her) desire to be on time at a brunch overrides my (and your, not “you’re”) all-consuming interest in this topic.

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