A Grammatical Aside

A Grammatical Aside

  • Comments 28

 

I just wrote in a comment to my previous entry, "The ability to rate one's knowledge of a subject accurately is strongly correlated with one's knowledge."

 

Wait a minute.  "One's"???  Word's grammar checker didn't blink at that.  But nor does it blink at "ones".  Well, according to the OED, "one's" is the genitive declension of "one".  Let's sum up:

 

Pronoun   Genitive

-----------------

Me        My

You       Your

Us        Our

Him       His

Her       Hers

Them      Their

Thou      Thine

It        Its

One       One's

 

I always thought that the reason that "its" doesn't take an apostrophe-s was because the rule "add an apostrophe-s to form a possessive" applied only to noun phrases, not to pronouns (And of course, we all know that apostrophe-s does not itself form a genitive noun -- otherwise, in the sentence "The First Lady is the President of America's wife," Laura Bush would be associated with America, not President Bush.)

 

What the heck is going on here?  Surely there is some grammar pedant out there who can justify this.  My faith in English grammar has been sorely tried.

  • Well, let's work backward. In the phrase "The First Lady is the President of America's wife", the possessive is applied to the entire phrase: "(the President of America)'s wife." This is common; here's a nice example: "The woman I went to school with’s daughter". (http://www.chessworks.com/ling/papers/myths/mb003.htm) FWIW, the ability to add a possessive to a noun phrase and not just to a noun is a comparatively recent development in English: "Until well into Middle English times what Jespersen calls the 'group genitive', i.e. '[the king of England]'s' nose did not exist, but the usual type was '[the king]'s nose of England'. In Old English the usual structure, before the use of the of-possessive would have been 'the king's nose England's' (http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-524.html) I have no explanation for the anomaly of "one's" except to note that "one" is a "special" kind of pronoun since it has no direct antecedent. Unfortunately, my two most reliable sources for sussing out this kind of things are unavailable for the nonce. What's actually interesting to contemplate is why the hell we have an apostrophe for the possessive at all. Possessive is just the genitive case; as such, it's a normal noun declension, and has no more need for an apostrophe than the plural does. Nothing is elided with the possessive/genitive. And as noted, pronouns manage without it. German likewise has an -s for the genitive and manages without a possessive marvelously well. So whither the flingin-flangin possessive apostrophe, which does little more these days than confuse and annoy people?
  • Well, according to Strunk & White, "The prenominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns, however, use the apostrophe to show possession." The example they use is "one's rights". Shertzer (Elements of Grammar) notes that "there is no apostrophe before the s in the possessive of personal pronouns", which suggests that maybe you mis-remembered the rule.
  • Gah - that should be misremembered, not mis-remembered. So much for pedantry.
  • Um, that would be "*whence* the flingin-flangin possessive apostrophe." Sheesh. This comment feature needs an edit feature. :-)
  • Re: whence the apostrophe? I was under the impression that in archaic Germanic languages like Old English, the genitive case was indicated by adding "es", and that we elide the "e" with an apostrophe. But what I know about Old English grammar you could fit into a matchbox without removing the matches first, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if I were completely misinformed...
  • its doesn't have an apostrophe because you wouldn't be able to tell whether it was the possessive or a contraction (of 'it is'). At least that's what I was taught in school :)
  • You're on the right track with the "e" being elided with an apostrophe - that is indeed the origin of the use of an apostrophe as the indication of the genitive. But this still doesn't explain "its". But that just turns out to be historical accident. The genitive form used to be "ites" - you can find a few examples of this in Old English documents of a certain age around on the web. (I forget which, but I did a search about 2 years ago the last time I had this discussion. I'm sure Google can still find them if you want to see them.) What seems to have happened is that "ites" got ellided, as frequently-used words tend to, but this happened much earlier in the history of English than the elision that happened to all other genitive forms. (Presumably because it was a widely-used word - the workhorses of a language are the ones that tend to get streamlined first, which is why the verb 'to be' is highly irregular in most languages.) At the time "ites" got elided to "its", apostrophes were apparently not used to indicate elision. (As far as I can tell... I've not done extensive research on this by the way. But what seems clear is that apostrophes weren't used for this particular elision.) So the progression looks like this: originally the word was "ites", then it became "its" at a time when apostrophes were apparently not required on such elisions, and then quite a lot later, we started to elide *all* the genetive forms, but by then it was considered correct to indicate such elisions with an apostrophe. So "its" is an anomaly because we started eliding that long before we elided all of the other genitive forms.
  • So "its" is a case of maintaining backward compatibility :-)
  • The issue of ellision of the vowel in genitive -es only partly explains the possessive apostrophe; the -as ending was also used for plural of masculine strong nouns in OE (nice declension and conjugation chart here: http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/courses/handouts/magic.pdf), which suggests that many noun plurals once had, as they did genitive singular, an unstressed vowel to go with their -s. Granted, it has less to do with how things really were than how they were perceived to be when our not-quite-rational system of orthography was being codified. As I sort of opined earlier, IMO the apostrophe is more trouble than it's worth for possessives; even educated people are confused about its use, if my email Inbox is any evidence. In historical linguistics, mass confusion about forms is often a prelude to an evolutionary change. :-)
  • Incidentally and on a slightly different note, you say "My faith in English grammar has been sorely tried." I do hope that you're careful to make a distinction between the real grammar of English, which is splendid and about which one never need feel sorely tried, and the highly artificial rules of English orthography, which are in fact so arbitrary that you and I don't even spell common words (e.g. "color") the same way.
  • I was being sarcastic.My bad; it is often difficult to deduce sarcasm from mere text and I was insufficiently clear. English has so many bizarre rules and bizarre exceptions to those rules that a quibble over an apostrophe in a seldom-used pronoun is hardly shocking. I mean, good heavens, any language in which "I would have had to have driven if I had wished to have arrived on time" -- five haves! -- is a perfectly sensible sentence is clearly not a sensible language! :-)
  • I don't see the need for delving into the history of elision (or "ellision," as somebody spelled it, probably for some very good reason). It is intuitively obvious why we need an apostrophe in "one's." The apostrophe, for better or for worse, does indicate possession--at least, we're accustomed to associating the two. And, oddly, we do need a non-possessive form of "one." For example, "I want a dozen doughnuts. Give me two of those chocolate-frosted ones, and...." The apostrophe helps us distinguish between a plural and a possessive. As for "its" versus "it's," this ultimately makes sense, too. The source of the confusion is that the apostrophe in English isn't just used to show possession, but also gets used when words are shortened (e.g., in "that's the spirit!" the apostrophe stands in for the "i" in "is"). Since you can form a possessive of "it" and we can also contract "it is," we need to differentiate between the possessive and the contraction by using or eschewing the apostrophe. It's perfectly arbitrary which form gets the apostrophe--there's a case for either--so who knows, somebody had to flip a coin at some point. Since it IS arbitrary, we just have to memorize the rule without relying on any logical reasoning to help us remember. So the more pedantic among us suck it up and remember the rule. As for grammar and/or orthography being a general pain in the neck, I have always considered that the very existence of heteronyms proves that English spelling, at least, is cruel.
  • Since the language geeks are out in force :-) and using lots of big words, here's a question for you. I know that "onomatopoeia" means essentially a word that sounds like the thing it is describing, but I seem to remember there being another word that meant "words that describe themselves." For example, "short" describes itself, but "big" does not. What is that word?!?
  • The words you're looking for are "heterological" and "homological", and you've heard of them because at some point in your philosophy minor, someone mentioned Grelling's Paradox to you. Grelling's paradox is a version of Russell's Paradox. "Heterological" means "not describing itself", ie, "long" is heterological, "polysyllabic" is homological. Is "heterological" heterological or homological?
  • > its doesn't have an apostrophe because you wouldn't be able to tell whether it was the possessive or a contraction (of 'it is'). At least that's what I was taught in school :) In other words, you're asserting that the language is the way it is because otherwise it would be hard to parse? That's not how languages evolve! There are lots of hard-to-parse constructions in English -- while we're on the subject of possessives, how about "Mitzi is the owner of Fido's sister"? Is Mitzi the sister of the guy who owns Fido, or does Mitzi own a dog, and the dog's brother is Fido? Why hasn't English evolved to eliminate this ambiguity? Rationality is occasionally a force that drives linguistic change, but the fact that we do not all speak Esperanto is a testament to the fact that it is a pretty weak force!
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