Grammar Booty Call: Apostrophilia 0 Comments

Panda Says No

Apostrophes are one of the most misused of punctuation marks, probably due to their having many uses. I won’t go into detail about the do’s and don’ts (see what I did there?) of apostrophe use—for that, I suggest you check out the relevant chapter in Lynne Truss’s bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Instead, I’ll share three apostrophe-related Grammar Booty Calls that I’ve received in the last month.

wont versus won’t

To some, like the sender of this Grammar Booty Call, it isn’t immediately obvious whether to use won’t or wont. Is there an easy way to know which is which?

Syntactically speaking, the two words fulfil different roles in a sentence. Won’t is an auxilliary verb, whereas wont is used either as an adjective in the predicative (i.e. that comes after a verb) or, less commonly, as a noun. To verify that you’re correctly using wont, test out whether it makes sense to replace it with another word occupying a similar syntactic niche—for example, a modal verb such as can. If the sentence makes sense, then you should be using won’t. Otherwise, go ahead and use wont.

Thus:

I wont yell at you. / I can yell at you.
(makes sense; therefore, incorrect use of wont)

She is wont to walk slowly. / She is can to walk slowly.
(doesn’t make sense; therefore, correct use of wont)

Another easy way to distinguish the two is on a semantic level. Wont (without the apostrophe) acts in the affirmative, referring to a habit or tendency: I’m wont to correct people’s grammar. In contrast, won’t (with the apostrophe) is a negation, with the -n’t signifying a contracted notI won’t correct your grammar.

cant versus can’t

Much like the semantic distinction between wont and won’t, these two can be associated with a sense of affirmative and negative action. Cant refers to preachy or hypocritical language, or the language of a particular group, whereas can’t denotes an inability to do something. Thus: I can’t keep listening to your emotive cant.

Possessive Forms of Nouns Ending in S (PoFoNES)

That heading is indeed a mouthful. But this case is indeed one that gets a lot of people confused. Is it acceptable to write the Jones’ house? And do Chris’ Dips have grammatically correct branding?

Chris' Dips logo

These questions are best answered by progressing through the different stages of PoFoNES.

(1) Singular common nouns ending in S.

The rule here is to use an apostrophe followed by an s—for example, boss’s.

(2) Plural common nouns ending in S.

When creating the possessive forms of plural common nouns, apostrophes are normally just added as an s is already present: the flowers’ vase. If the common noun itself ends in s (or x or z), convention dictates that an es be added to signify a plural: boss becomes bosses. From there, turning the plural noun into a possessive is likewise a matter of appending an apostrophe: the bosses’ chambers.

Under no circumstances are these two conventions to be confused. I’ve encountered numerous cases in which people have attempted to pluralise a noun ending in s by adding an apostrophe (e.g. Lol, your Facebook status’ always make me laugh). As Truss would put it: The panda says NO!

(3) Singular proper nouns ending in S.

Perhaps the trickiest one, this is a point of divergence for many linguists and publishing professionals. Some advocate adding an apostrophe-s only when an /iz/ sound is added at the end of a word to signify possession, with just an apostrophe for all other cases. Thus:

James’s (pronounced /JEYMS-iz/)

but

Archimedes’ (as it is not pronounced /ar-ki-MEE-deez-iz/)

Others prefer to add an apostrophe-s for all proper nouns ending in s except for ancient and literary names (e.g. Herodotus’, Jesus’Keats’), or except for those with more than one syllable (Herodotus’Jesus’ but Keats’s).

My preference, which is in line with the advice of Australia’s government Style Manual as well as the Chicago Manual of Style, is to be as straightforward as possible: just add an apostrophe-s to everything in this category (James’sJesus’sJones’s).

Either way, on my terms, Chris’ Dips (pronounced /KRIS-iz/) violates the ‘iz’ convention and just looks unattractive.

(4) Plural proper nouns ending in S.

The final stage. In the original example, we are referring to the house owned by the Jones family (i.e. multiple people with the surname Jones). The first step, then, is to pluralise the noun as per the ‘add es’ convention I outlined in PoFoNES Level (2): Joneses. From that point, proceed  to turn the plural proper noun into a possessive as per the same convention: Joneses’.

In short, just remember: singular nouns, whether common or proper, use apostrophe-s (boss’sJones’s), while plurals use s-apostrophe (bosses’Joneses’).

Adolfo Aranjuez (a.k.a. ‘Fez’) is the deputy editor of Voiceworks. He is also the in-house editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books, whose annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing was released in November. If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.

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