19 August 2010

On Grammar

First of all, and I hate that I have to say this, but grammar is important.

It gives order. It is a system of rules.

Early in our marriage, Paul and I had a fight about a particular etiquette rule. He said it was stupid. I said it didn't matter whether the one particular rule was stupid (it wasn't...), but that it falls into a system of rules that provide order.

Very recently, Paul and I had an interaction with some rude people - or rather some people that to us seemed rude, but they themselves may have very well been shocked to hear our conclusions. Paul said that he didn't understand why they didn't just follow the RULES. And of course he is, and I was, right. Just follow the rules of etiquette, and your life will be easier. Everything will be clear. If you are supposed to do something in a social situation, and don't do it, people wonder whether it was a slip or a purposeful slight. If you just follow the rules, you don't have this issue.

Well, just follow the rules of grammar, and your writing will be clear - people will know what you're talking about.

Now, I am defending grammar whilst writing in the language most riddled with exceptions and errors in the history of language. There is no doubt that the people in Ur were clearer than we English speakers are - not to mention we bastard American English speakers. But, I was born into America, and here I shall plant my flag.

This question has arisen in my life today. What shall we do with a name, singular, ending in s.

Let's take, for example, Collins. Or we could use Ada Brooks. Yes, I have saddled my family with, not one, but two names that end in s, and so are subject to this confusion that, apparently, is confusing to EVERYONE.

I was taught, by my English teachers and my grammarian parents, that all nouns, proper or not, follow these rules:
  • To make a singular noun, no matter its ending, possessive, one adds apostrophe s. The car. The car's backseats. Collins. Collins's seat. If you say "Collins' seat," people might think that there is more than one Collin sharing a seat.
  • To make a plural noun, if it already ends in s, possessive, one adds a simple apostrophe. The families. The families' suppers. The Forsters. The Forsters' home.
  • To make a plural noun, if it does not end in s, possessive, one adds an apostrophe s. The children. The children's grammar lesson.

Now, from what I can tell, people don't disagree about the above rules. They just disagree about whether proper nouns follow the same rules.
No one (or at least I hope no one) suggests that if you say, "the class's field trip," you should actually say, "the class' field trip."

Take the word glass:

Class - singular, non possessive.
Classes - plural, non possessive.
Class's - singular, possessive.
Classes' - plural, possessive.

Why should Collins not follow the same rules? I hope it's not because we want to save time writing or typing an s.....

But, what people say is that because it is a Proper noun rather than a regular old noun - because Collins is 'Collins' and not 'glass' - he gets a pass - Collins gets to only add an apostrophe.

I disagree. I happen to have MLA and The Economist on my side. If you've ever read The Economist, and you care about language, you should know that you want them in your camp.

I think proper nouns should follow the same rules as regular ol' nouns. People struggle with grammar. I struggle with grammar and I care, for heavens sake. Which means we don't need any more categories than we already have.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends the traditional (my way), but allows for the alternative (those who would say "Collins' seat").

Now... one argument that I might be willing to entertain is this one:

When one says, "Go get in Brooks's car," one almost always pronounces the second s. And if one doesn't, he or she sounds like a redneck and my father, whose name is Brooks, is liable to stop and correct that person - in front of all sorts of people.

But... when one says some things - like "Go get in Collins's car," one does not pronounce the second s. I might be willing to go with the argument that things should be written as they are spoken. So, if I had my pronunciation druthers, when making possessive my first child's name, I'd add the apostrophe s, but when making possessive my baby child's name, I wouldn't.

But, I'm loathe to make it a "whatever you feel like saying" grammar rule. Because, well, we have enough of that in America. And, the written should always be 'official' while the spoken is dialectical. You say tomato, I say tomato, but we both spell it the same way. Because written language needs to translate.

(Now, I would never take away poetic license - I'm talking about in pure non-artistic, if you will, writing. Newspapers, lists, essays, etc. Fiction and poetry can do as they please - you know - if you are a reputable author or poet.)

Some will say that this whole discussion doesn't matter. In the list of things in the world that matter, it really isn't high up there. Those people are right.

But consider the most recent prevailing bastardization (try not to get nauseated):

People are now using apostrophes to mean pluralization when dealing with names. So, let's pretend your last name is Jones. People are now writing, for example, "The Jones' have neighborhood watch this week." That is nonsensical. The Jones' (if you are going to even allow for just a simple apostrophe at the end of singular proper nouns ending in s) means nothing. It certainly doesn't mean more than one Jones. Joneses is the only way to write that. And it doesn't mean more than one Jones are in possession of something - to do that means that you have to write the Joneses'.

It's not so dangerous when you are saying, "Collins' seat," or "Collins's seat." But it gets really dangerous, if because of that confusion, you have people who don't know the rules. And because they don't know the rules - because they think they can willy-nilly decide on grammar rules based on what makes them happy - then you have people who actually think they can add an apostrophe to pluralize.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, should put terror in the hearts of grammarians, english teachers, writers, and parents everywhere.

Next time in On Grammar, well discuss the serial, or Oxford, comma and its uses. Something which I left for a time and to which I have recently been converted back.

Aren't you pumped?


  1. Haha, since you brought up the grammatical issue, I will ask your take on my blog header. "The Adventure of the Amos's: All about the Amos's and our adventures" I asked quite a few people the proper way to add the "s" to the end...whether it should be "es" "'s" or just what. I received numerous answers, and because I am not a pro when it comes to grammatical rules, I went with the most common. But since you did a blog post on the grammatical rule, I would love to hear your take on how it should be :)

  2. My understanding is that it should be Amoses.

    You are trying to say The adventures of more than one amos, right? not the adventures of something that belongs to the one Amos?

    Apostrophes should never be used to make something plural - just possessive. You can read about it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plural

    But, if you don't like Amoses, you could go with "Amos Family" -

    I'm a stickler - I know not everyone is =)