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.”
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.”)