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Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Language Arts Standards And the Possessive 'Apoxtrophe'


Language Arts Standards And the Possessive 'Apoxtrophe'

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Virtually everyone in politics these days is in favor of Tough Standards, and most of these advocates also approve of tests to measure whether the standards are being attained. Though much attention and money have been thrown at these two items, far too little serious attention has been paid to getting from the standards to their attainment. It is the thesis of this essay that the attainment of even the most elementary standards—in language arts, at least—is likely to involve staggering complexities.

The attainment of even the most elementary standards—in language arts, at least—is likely to involve staggering complexities.

My example will be the possessive apostrophe, but I could just as easily and with the same result have chosen any one of a hundred other objectives—the semicolon, the topic sentence, any principle of style or usage, the paragraph, the notion of sentence completeness, any one of the parts of speech. You name it.

A particularly good feature of the apostrophe objective is that everyone is in favor of kids' mastering it. No literate person wants to find under his windshield an item like the flier I recently found under mine advertising a new local eatery that was featuring pie's and cake's. (I admit I haven't patronized the place; I'm too afraid of germ's.) Note that one of the grade 3-5 objectives of the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, also known as McREL, is that "[the student] uses apostrophes in contractions and possessive nouns."

McREL is the group that Achieve Inc. seems to believe has the edge over all others for standards in English language arts. By the way, since the objective does not appear in K-2, 6-8, or 9-12 of the McREL list (see, one must assume that all students are expected to master it by grade 5. This will be good news to college teachers of English, who will testify that the it's/its confusion is the most common error they see and that students who use apostrophes in phrases like "today's society" and "that's" are an endangered species.

Let's look at the facts.

•The Failure of the Textbooks. Research indicates that in most school districts, the textbook is the curriculum. Every elementary textbook that I have seen says that the possessive apostrophe is used to show ownership. Does it?

Consider this set of phrases: the child's toy, the child's foot, the child's brother, the child's kidnapper. The child may indeed own her toy, but she surely doesn't own her foot in the same sense, and she certainly doesn't own her brother (just ask him). In the last example, it is the kidnapper who possesses the child, not the other way around.

The reality is that about 60 percent of all possessive apostrophes do not signal ownership, even if we interpret that concept liberally. This conclusion was established over half a century ago in a study led by the linguist Charles Carpenter Fries and financed by the National Council of Teachers of English. It is noteworthy that Mr. Fries' corpus was not the language of the literati but of ordinary American citizens writing personal letters to their government, letters that were intended to accomplish an immediate purpose.

In short, the textbook definition is flat-out wrong. Moreover, if students actually used it, they would make errors more than half the time.

What's simple is what sells. This proposition is strongly supported by the entire history of textbook publishing.

At the risk of exposing too much truth, let's take a closer look at a few examples of commonly used, nonpossessive relationships involving the apostrophe:

The subjective possessive: "His mother's request." The first noun in the pair is the subject of the second, which is actually a verb in disguise: The mother did the requesting.

The objective possessive: "The child's kidnapper." The first noun in the pair is the object of the second, also a verb in disguise: Someone kidnapped the child.

The possessive of measure: "a good night's sleep," "an acre's crops," "a dime's worth." The first noun measures the second in time, space, or value.

There are yet others, but let's conclude with the possessive of origin: "the author's books." The first noun is the originator, creator, maker of the second. This "possessive" is particularly interesting because "the author's books" can also be a literal possessive, since the phrase can mean the books owned by the author rather than those created by her. Out of context it's ambiguous.

Why do such matters never come up in textbooks? As a person who has spent a lifetime writing them, I can tell you why: Because of the unwritten law in the school division of major publishing houses: What's simple is what sells. This proposition is strongly supported by the entire history of textbook publishing.

Before I move on, what sort of items do the test-makers in your state use—items like "the robin's egg"? Or items like "for heaven's sake"? When students' essays are scored, are the kids penalized for writing "Nancys notes" but not for "in todays society"?

•Shifting Standards of Usage. Let's suppose that we throw away the textbook (or the script) and let the teachers teach. What would most English teachers do about the following trio of phrases? Which is correct? (This would make a great multiple-choice item for the New York regents, by the way.): (a) The teachers credit union; (b) The teacher's credit union; or, (c) The teachers' credit union.

I believe the possessive apostrophe can be taught and learned, not however by the textbook/script approach and least of all by the list-and-test method.

I've not taken a scientific sample, but every high school English teacher I have asked answered that the correct spelling was "c"—and with good reason. After all, the teachers (plural) do own the credit union. Very well, but call Credit Union Central in your state capital and ask. That's what I did, and discovered that today in my state (Pennsylvania) only two employee or teacher credit unions spell their name with an apostrophe. Not very long ago, many more did.

The reality is that there is a marked and accelerating linguistic drift toward dropping the apostrophe in names of organizations. And no one can stop it.

What about place names, like Pikes Peak and Devils Island? Before answering, did you know that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names recommended an end to possessive forms in place names? When? Over a century ago—in 1891. (It's Pikes Peak but Devil's Island.)

Brand names are another problem. On my way to work, I pass Breugger's Bagels, then Starbucks Coffee. Don't tell me the people who named their coffee after George Starbuck, Captain Ahab's first mate aboard the Pequod, are illiterate.

What is a teacher—or a student—to do in such a sea of contradiction? Perhaps the best answer is "Keep their eyes open." One of the co-authors of the recently published New York Times Manual of Style and Usage—please note, Achieve and McREL, he used neither an apostrophe after "Times" nor italics to mark the title—wrote last year, "The rules are not sacrosanct. ... [W]hen usage has changed so much that doing it the 'right way' sounds wrong or old-fashioned to most people, it's time for us to change, too."

And here's an even more interesting observation from the editors of The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language: "It appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people."

What is a hapless 5th grader (or his teacher) to do, especially if we add the possibility that his native language is Spanish, or French, or Italian, none of which uses the possessive apostrophe in the first place? (Investigate the facts, Alfie Kohn and other thoughtful constructivists would no doubt answer. Not a bad idea.)

What is a teacher—or a student—to do in such a sea of contradiction? Perhaps the best answer is 'Keep their eyes open.'

We English speakers ourselves didn't use the possessive apostrophe until the late 1500s. In fact, in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays (1623) only 4 percent of the possessives were marked with an apostrophe. But by the Fourth Folio (1685), the singular possessives are fairly consistently marked by an apostrophe.

Incidentally, I've said nothing about the use of the apostrophe for contractions. I'll leave it to the reader's imagination what implications that would have for the implementation of this simple grade 3-5 objective.

Though it is unrealistic to expect 5th graders, or even 12th graders, perfectly to master the mark, I believe the possessive apostrophe can be taught and learned, not however by the textbook/script approach and least of all by the list-and-test method.

For starters, I propose that we distinguish between the normal apostrophe, used for contractions, and the apoxtrophe, which is used for "possessives." With this distinction, students will at least realize they are dealing with two different functions, and they can add to their vocabulary a word that is such an apt descriptive for such a vexatious mark. And who knows, in time, writers and editors may say a pox on the apoxtrophe and drop it altogether, to everyone's relief, as the grammarian/lexicographer John Ash proposed. When? Nearly 21/2 centuries ago—in 1760.

I wish I could end this essay without saying a pox on the Tough Standards and Assessments movement, many of whose believers, I will assume, are well-intentioned. But I must conclude instead by reaffirming my position that the kinds of things I have pointed out about the apostrophe could just as easily have been said of virtually every other writing standard in the Achieve/McREL English language arts inventory. In short, the problem with Tough Standards is far more deeply rooted than its proponents seem to imagine. It will not be fixed by any of the proposals Achieve has advanced to date, nor by those recently put forth by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, though this critic welcomes his call for a "midcourse review."

This is one response to that call.

Edgar H. Schuster is a member of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's writing advisory committee and its staff-development subcommittee. He lives in Melrose Park, Pa.

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Pages 45,48

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