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Where did the practice of using apostrophes for possessive nouns but not pronouns originate?

For example, possessive nouns (both proper and common) are written with a apostrophe before the final s:

  • Bill’s, not Bills
  • Sarah’s, not Sarahs
  • the bear’s, not the bears
  • the lizard’s, not the lizards

On the other hand, several possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes before the s:

  • his, not hi’s
  • hers, not her’s
  • its, not it’s
  • theirs, not their’s
  • ours, not our’s
  • yours, not your’s

When and where did this usage originate? Was there any technical advantage of this usage?

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Forms such as her's and their's were used in the past. The apostrophe has been a cause of confusion ever since it was introduced into English in the sixteenth century. Time we got rid of it. –  Barrie England Dec 28 '12 at 18:42
    
careful selection of evidence. Where would the apostrophe go in my, mine, your, her, our, or their? –  nohat Dec 28 '12 at 22:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It has nothing to do with possesive nouns and pronouns, and the use of the apostrophe here is consistent. An apostrophe appears wherever one or more letters have been removed, which is the case here.

Classically, we'd have written "Johnes things", instead of "John's things". So the apostrophe marks the absence of the letter E. This is why it does not appear in words like "hers" or "theirs".

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What about one's? –  endolith Sep 15 '13 at 4:00

According to an earlier answer to another question, David Crystal's book The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left says that lack of apostrophes in possessive pronouns was due to forgetfulness on the part of 19th century printers and grammarians:

Its is just as possessive as cat’s, but it doesn’t have an apostrophe. Why not? Because the printers and grammarians never thought the matter through. They applied their rule to nouns and forgot about pronouns, thus creating an exception (along with the food is hers, ours, yours, theirs) without realizing it. And even if they had noticed, they wouldn’t have done anything about it, for it’s was already taken, as it were, as the abbreviation of it is.

I don't know if that explanation is correct. It may merely be a long-winded way of saying no one knows.

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2  
+1. Such are the haphazard ways of language. –  Barrie England Dec 28 '12 at 18:54
2  
Crystal has it right, as usual. Since apostrophes have nothing to do with speech or language -- like guardian angels, they "speak" inaudibly, and only in one's soul -- their deployment is entirely a matter of printing convention, like spaces, em-dashes, serifs, capitalization, dotting is, and crossing ts. And we all know how fastidious media has always been about consistency in such matters. –  John Lawler Dec 28 '12 at 19:09
    
I noticed that the edition of Pride and Prejudice that I downloaded on my Kobo contains several instances of "her's" and "your's"; though this is not consistent, so these may be transcription errors. –  Colin Fine Dec 28 '12 at 19:30

First, points of terminological order: a possessive pronoun is any instance of the possessive that substitutes for the thing possessed—that is, in “the car is Sarah’s” and “the car is hers”, both Sarah’s and hers are possessive pronouns. In cases like “Sarah’s car” and “her car”, Sarah and her are possessive determiners.

English has two sets of forms for pronouns used as possessives: as possessive determiners: my, thy, your, his, her, its, our, their and as possessive pronouns: mine, thine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs. (The thou/thee/thy/thine forms are mostly obsolete in modern English, but show a parallel with I/me/my/mine, which otherwise seem like oddball outsiders in the paradigm.)

For non-pronouns used as possessives, we always use an apostrophe and the letter S—Sarah’s, Bill’s, the Queen of England’s, Jesus’—regardless of whether the possessive is used as a determiner or a pronoun:

Sarah’s car is broken
The broken car is Sarah’s
The Queen of England’s hat is purple
The purple hat is the Queen of England’s

However, when a pronoun is used possessively, we never use an apostrophe, regardless of whether the pronoun form has an S in it or not:

Nothing you could say can tear me away from my guy
The girl is mine
And I could be proud that I'm his girl
I would gladly take her place
How could anybody break a heart like hers?

I think the system would be even more strange and irregular if some of the possessive forms of personal pronouns had apostrophes but not others rather than the system which we have, where none of them have apostrophes. Where would the apostrophe go in mine, exactly?

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The apostrophe would go at the end where the 'z' has been elided since the protogermanic. In mine'z humble opinion. –  MετάEd Dec 28 '12 at 22:24
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-1 Had to carefully read through the lengthy 'answer' looking to find the "where, when, why", which incidentally, is the question. –  Kris Dec 29 '12 at 5:31
    
@MετάEd Remember that only masculine strong nouns took an -es genitive, and even then only in the singular. Weak nouns took -n in the singular and -na in the plural for their genitives. So the -n can also say genitive, just as in the pronouns mīn and þīn. For your next trick, go figure our what happened to nominative wit and genitive uncer. –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 15:23

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