Apostrophes; possessive case

Subject: Apostrophes; possessive case
From: Ben Kovitz <bkovitz -at- IGS -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:01:00 PDT

Michal Lastman wrote:

> The only other technical writer at my office has joined sides with the
> editor who bans apostrophes. He says that contractions are a sign of
> "sloppy" writing. He insists inanimate objects can't use an apostrophe to
> show possessive because objects can't possess and for clarity and
> consistency, I shouldn't use possessive forms with people's names either.

This other technical writer does not know English. You should have
him deported. The possessive case in English indicates lots of
things: "possession" of attributes, ownership, being a part of a
whole--all sorts of relations in which one thing is a sort of
anchor to which other things are attached. For example: "that
wall's color is awful", "France's GNP is declining", "Bob's breath
is awful" (does Bob *own* his breath?), "Bob's ex-wife is coming
to dinner" (does Bob *own* his ex-wife?), "Bob's halitosis has
improved" (does Bob *own* his maladies?). It really helps a
language to be able to indicate this sort of thing, which is probably
why all languages do (that I've heard of, anyway).

English provides two ways to indicate this category of relation:
the possessive case, and the preposition "of". I think the modern
style of the possessive case has been around since the Danes showed
up in England, so it's got plenty of precedent. (It replaced a form
that really does no longer exist in English, the genitive case, in
which the object of possession received a special inflection.)
There's no reason to shun it in favor of the prepositional form. The
possessive case is handy sometimes, so it's wise to use it sometimes.
Anyone who would say "the ex-wife of Bob is coming to dinner" is
not from an English-speaking country.

And people who don't know what the apostrophe-s means just don't
know English. You should contract with someone to write the manuals
for them in their native language. This might also provide new
employment for your co-worker.

(Oh, look at that, I said "THEIR native language"--no doubt leading
some readers to believe that groups of people can own languages.
BTW, I know where you can get a good deal on Provencal, if you're

Arlen P. Walker suggests:

> First, request a source for this. Do this gently, as there's a lot of
> politics and ego involved here.

No. Violence is the only solution.

Ben Kovitz
bkovitz -at- igs -dot- com

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