Posted by Rob Shimwell

grammar-nerds-jokes-37__700Just had a chum drop me a line that asked if there should be an apostrophe in a sentence he wanted to use in a possible strap-line. It was about possession rather than missing letters. “Eastcott: The pets kind of vets.” Where to put the pesky ‘postrophe, if indeed it needed one. ( by the way. Very nice bunch of people. And animals.)

Yes, I know we’ve been on about this before but this has got me going.

Stay with me on this. It’s not boring, honest.

Now, the old rule to run a check where the apostrophe goes is to stick an ‘of’ in there and see what happens.

So, you have

“The dogs owner was as aggressive as the dog.”

Only 1 dog: The dog’s owner was …. (The owner of the dog)

2 dogs: The dogs’ owner was … (The owner of the dogs)

So, you put the apostrophe at the end of that word in italics – remember we have those niggly words like women or children, so don’t run the risk of saying “after the s if it’s plural.”

“The womans dog.” (The dog of the woman)

The woman’s dog

“The womens dogs.” (The dogs of the women)

The women’s dogs.

I know lady is more civil, but it doesn’t illustrate the point so well.

Now then my next issue: do we always need the apostrophe if it’s a plural?

The drinks cabinet.

The clothes shop.

The arms race.

Technically you might argue they all fall into the “of” category – it’s a cabinet of drinks, a shop of clothes etc. And it generally throws up a stink of an argument with the grammar police.

In this case, it’s normally argued that drinks, clothes and arms are acting like adjectives, helping to describe the noun (ie what kind of cabinet, shop or race is it?) or are attributive (Oooh, look at me and me big long words.)

Or if we use clothes in a different way:

The clothes’ condition had deteriorated in the damp garage.

Say clothes shop and clothes’ condition out loud and listen to where you put the stress.

clothes shop and clothes’ condition

Sorry if people have just tut-tutted you on the train.

But I think it’s marvellous that whether you understand grammar or not, whether you think it’s an attributive plural or a possessive plural, or have no ruddy clue about either, your brain still knows where to stick the stress.

Imagine the challenge of trying to teach and generate a ‘natural’ usage from a foreign student learning English, however advanced his or her grammar might be.

And now to another funny point. You can say:

Tim’s friend told me …., which, going by my apostrophe rules, is the same as A friend of Tim told me…

Why, oh why then, do we find ourselves saying (including me) A friend of Tim’s told me…?

We have a double genitive effectively. Now this is not a medical condition, just one of the many peculiarities of English.

Kate Burridge, who is by all accounts quite an expert, says she thinks there’s a distinction between the two. She prefers Greg, rather than Tim, but there’s no accounting for taste.

weeds“To say you’re a friend of Greg’s means that Greg looks upon you as a friend. To say you’re a friend of Greg means that you look upon Greg as a friend. A subtle difference. It seems that the addition of -s to . . . Greg is a way of focusing attention on [this person] as having a more active role in the relationship being expressed. Double possession has given us a way to express quite fine distinctions that we couldn’t convey before. The extra marking is not overkill in this case.”

(Kate Burridge, Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Well, aren’t we sophisticated and subtle? Do you agree, do you think it’s simply wrong or don’t you care? Please let us know.

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