NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin recently responded to what he describes as “a regular flow of comments and observations about language” from listeners; my response after reading it is to wish he’d stick to journalism and ethics and leave language alone. My esteemed copyediting colleague fev at Headsuptheblog has done a wonderful demolition job, of which my favorite bit is a response to this gem:

Mr. Everest also raised a question about when to use the plural possessive on the radio.
For example: should we say “John Roberts’ confirmation” or “John Roberts’s confirmation?” Mr. Everest is advocating the latter.
In print this is a constant issue. My esteemed colleague Ian Mayes is the readers’ editor (aka, the Ombudsman) at the Guardian in London. He has referred to this inappropriate use of the apostrophe as a dropping by that mythic creature, the *”Apostrofly.”

Sez fev:

One’s ears are tempted to steam.
* First off, the apostrofly Ian describes is a cousin of the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”: random use of the apostrophe to create plurals, for example, as in “The Smith’s are coming.” It is not used to mark possession.
* Second, you don’t pronounce punctuation. “Roberts’ confirmation” is not an “inappropriate use” of the apostrophe. It isn’t any righter or wronger than “Rehnquist’s confirmation” because the apostrophe isn’t a sound. The complainant isn’t “technically right,” no matter what the NPR reference librarian thinks. Mr. Everest (along with Strunk & White and the NYT) favors one way of forming the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in “s”; the AP uses another.
* Which brings us to the most painfully obvious point: “Roberts'” is not a plural possessive because “Roberts” is not a forgodsake plural noun. Obviously, there are exceptions—”my 4400 class has two Roberts, three Staycees and a Lucifer”—but this is not any of them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
Use the plural possessive on the radio exactly as you do in real life, in other words: To make possessive nouns plural. Thank you.

I’m tempted to quote more, but it’s all good; just drop by the copy desk and let the man bend your ear. (And no, I don’t know what that asterisk is doing in *”Apostrofly.”)


  1. Stercuo Scarabaeus says:

    ‘umans be so lazy that if thee think Robby be spelt with an Ess ‘ending then Say the confirmation of Mr. Roberts [it could be Mr. Robert for I doth not know]] in the case for us not in the ‘no’, to be correct in stead of a tick in the back, type two letters [i.e. of] so much effort.

  2. aldiboronti says:

    Very enjoyable article, lh. The tosh about NPR being the ‘standard bearer’ of American speech reminded me of the BBC’s pretensions many moons ago to be the ‘arbiter elegantiae’ for British pronunciation. I still remember newscaster Angela Rippon’s ‘guerrilla’, which sounded as if she were trying to hawk up a particularly stubborn piece of phlegm while growling at the camera. Some idiot at the Beeb had decided that all words that looked ‘foreign’ should be pronounced as such. Junta was another victim of this policy, which was at length abandoned, I’m happy to say, owing to the universal derision and mockery it inspired.

  3. 1) An Aussie chum calls the little blighter the “feral apostrophe”.
    2) At school, for what it’s worth, we were allowed to write James’ pencil, or James’s pencil (we tended to say the latter), but were forbidden the treble sybillant e.g. no Jesus’s cross. And certainly not Jesus’s sake.

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