Monday, March 24, 2008

When Is Possession?

Now that we've discovered that no clarity exists on apostrophe “s” use to indicate possession, let's consider how you can decide whether possession need to be indicated at all.

Folks who have studied Latin or other languages that indicate possession with a different form of the word, rather than a confusing rule about endings, have learned a clearer way to show belonging in English. (Thanks heavens, because declinations confused me enough without punctuation concerns.)

When I began to learn Latin, there was no consideration of apostrophes. If one noun belonged to another, it was indicated with the word “of”, meaning “belonging to”. Thus, the possessive form of Mike and word shoes meant “the shoes of Mike” or “Mike's shoes”.

Making that decision with proper nouns presents most writers with little difficulty. What about yesterday's example of five years' hard labor? Can time own another abstract concept?

Again, substitute the word “of” for the apostrophe. If I'm sentenced to hard labor for five years, then the labor “belongs to” the years. It would make sense and be more clear to say “the hard labor of five years”, but nobody does.

In most cases, the “of” construction sounds stilted and old-fashioned, so I don't advocate writing it that way. When deciding whether your characters will meet in two weeks' time or over the course of two weeks apart, knowing that both indicate time's passage can help you decide whether to apostrophize the matter.