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The Halloween Snowstorm: an Avalanche of Apostrophes

Saturday morning, October 29: Storm predicted. A friend forwards the link to Henry Hitchings’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Is This the Future of Punctuation?” I jot down his remark, “Defenders of the apostrophe insist that it minimizes ambiguity, but there are few situations in which its omission can lead to real misunderstanding.”

Saturday evening: Snowflakes the size and weight of squash balls hurtle down on Hartford, where I live. Power goes. Light a fire; get out the wine. Friends from around the corner, evacuated when a 150-year-old tree falls on their house, make it past the power lines and we hold a slumber party in the living room. Spend the night pondering Hitchings. Really, Mr. Hitchings, I think as the trees crash around us. As a member of the clan—and here I refer to those of us whose names end in “s”—you should defend our turf more forcefully, at least when it comes to the use of the apostrophe to indicate possession. I figure myself as a clan pooh-bah, since my name claims two esses, but those of Mr. Hitchings’s ilk have surely run across the plural/singular confusion. That is, if the signpost in front of Henry’s domicile (in England, far from the storm) reads “Hitchings House,” we cannot know if the house belongs to Mr. Hitchings alone or to a group of people who share the last name “Hitching.” The same potential for misunderstanding, I think, lurks in “Hitchings’ House,” which follows the once pervasive but now infrequent advice to indicate possessive of a word ending in “s” with only an apostrophe, regardless of whether the word is singular or plural. I do, on the other hand, grant to Mr. Hitchings that anxiety over placement of the apostrophe has led certain clan members to abort their own names, so we find folks named Hitchings rather desperately resorting to “Hitching’s House.” What is a pooh-bah to do?

More trees crash. More wood on the fire.

Sunday, October 30: My street looks like Armageddon. Trees and power lines are strewn like toothpicks and streamers after a party. The solution, I think as I walk gingerly around the unrecognizable block, is of course “Hitchings’s House,” or to get more personal about it, “Ferriss’s House”—and no, I do not care that the former is pronounced “Hitchings” whereas the latter is pronounced “Ferrisses.” As Mr. Hitchings correctly observes, “The apostrophe is mainly a device for the eye, not the ear.”

Monday, October 31: Halloween has been canceled. A week till we get power back. We all go to Starbucks, but Starbucks is dark. For comfort I turn my thoughts, again, to the apostrophe as a possessive. I realize I can speak only as a clan member, not as a style czar—especially since there’s no Internet for me to check and it’s too cold to sit and read style manuals. Still, having slept poorly in the firelit living room, I find myself bothered by the teaching, still pervasive in schools, of the names “Jesus” and “Moses” as exceptions to my “ess apostrophe ess” guideline. Once upon a time, names from the Greek were in general styled as taking only the apostrophe for possession—Ceres’, Xerxes’, etc. But the anecdotal evidence of my and my children’s schooling (again, no Internet to check), sets only those two Biblical names as the present-day exceptions to the “rule.” There may be both linguistic justification for this oddity, or it may be one of those innocuous traditions, like standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, but it’s always struck me as privileging these two pillars of Judeo-Christian tradition, almost as if Jesus and Moses are themselves both singular and plural and thus a level above us mortal humans who need the power grid.

Wednesday, November 2: I run away to New York, where I meet with my literary agent. There are lights everywhere. Bliss. Why, I ask my agent, did he name his agency “Writers House,” without an apostrophe?

He looks puzzled. We had been commiserating over the snowstorm and contemplating my literary future. “I guess it had something to do with e-mail?” he tries.

“But you founded the agency before there was e-mail,” I protest.

“Oh. Well, then, I guess we thought it was cleaner.”

Cleaner, I think. Hm.

Thursday, November 3: Still in the city, bliss! I lunch with my editor. I report my obsession over the apostrophe and the possessive. “Publishers Weekly doesn’t have one,” she observes.

“But Men’s Health does. And Ladies’ Home Journal.”

“Well,” she says. “Go figure.”

Exactly.

Saturday, Nov. 4: Home again. The infuriating racket of generators pervades our neighborhood. Then a friend with a generator invites us over, and I am everlastingly grateful. At dinner, we all share the ways in which we’ve managed to live through the storm, the loss of power, the wreckage, the cold. “I’ve been thinking about apostrophes,” I say.

“How so?” inquires my friend Bob Janas.

“You know, the use of them for possession. For instance, how do you make the possessive of your last name?”

“I add an apostrophe.”

“No ‘s’ after? Just J-a-n-a-s apostrophe?”

“That’s right,” he says. “Why? Does that bother you?”

Monday, Nov. 7: I would like to report, gentle reader, that at this point the lights have come back on and I can contemplate weightier matters, like double and single quote marks. But these are only diary entries, not a parable. Along with fifty other neighbors I sit in Starbucks, where conveniences have been restored, and I file this post. May those of you on the grid possess the apostrophical debate!

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