Monday, 24 September 2007


My students all know about my obsession with proper use of the apostrophe, a result, I think, of its terrible misuse by so many (not all) of them. I enjoyed reading William Safire in yesterday's New York Times magazine (p. 18) on the subject (he too is OCD on this):


“Yesterday, I picked up a pamphlet that proclaimed ‘Starbucks commitment to social responsibility,’ ” writes Prof. Henry Richardson of Georgetown University. “That’s all very nice, but what about their commitment to the apostrophe?”
In the advertising claim “Starbucks commitment,” the commitment is the promise that belongs to Starbucks, and its possessive action calls for a punctuation mark that indicates that: an apostrophe. But this clear grammatical requirement runs into the “sounds funny” problem. To make it correct, you would write “Starbucks’s,” requiring the pronunciation “Starbucks-zzz.” Of course, if the name of the chain were Starbuck’s, (with an apostrophe, meaning “the place owned by a guy named Starbuck, like the character in ‘Moby-Dick,’ ” then it would get a little tricky: Starbuck’s’s. That sounds as if you’re fast asleep.
The British faced the problem of pronouncing the possessive mark after a name ending in s with the Court of St. James’s. They did not equivocate; to this day every newly appointed American ambassador is instructed to say James-zzz. It’s not all that hard to say, and correct usage gives you that added frisson of self-congratulation for standing firm on the side of good grammar and not succumbing to laziness.
I take this stand, splashing about in my venti cuppa coffee, because I’m The Times’s language columnist.

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