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Murphy's other law.

We speakers of English are a possessive lot. The trait is built into our language, all that apostropheess stuff like "my brother's keeper," "the horse's mouth," and "someone else's opinion." We like to know what belongs to whom.

Possessives endow us with a comfortable sense of property, of owning, and--even more important--of belonging. They suggest that nothing in this world is unattached, that none of us is an island.

Ours is nearly the only language that uses that peculiar apostrophe-ess way of showing ownership and belonging: "my brother's keeper," "the horse's mouth," "someone else's opinion." Most other languages say something like "the keeper of my brother," "the mouth of the horse," or "the opinion of someone else." In English we can go either way, within limits. The limits are important.

All this came to mind when I heard someone on the radio talking about "the ark of Noah." I turned then to my wife.

"There's an oddity," I said. "Who ever heard of 'the ark of Noah' ?" "It's from the Biblical story. You know, all the animals two by two." My wife is a fountain of knowledge. "Yes, I know about 'Noah's Ark,' but not 'the ark of Noah.' It's like saying 'the law of Murphy.'"

"Isn't that the one about how the overalls got into the chowder of Mrs. Murphy?"

"There! You hear how funny that sounds? Noah's Ark and Murphy's Law and Mrs. Murphy's chowder are stock phrases. We have to keep them as they are, not with of but with apostrophe-ess."

"How about 'Paul Revere's ride'? Wasn't it really 'The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere' ?" She had pinned me on a technicality, but I didn't give up. "Look, remember last March when we went to Las Vegas for our anniversary? Where did we stay?"

"The palace of Caesar," she said. She is no pushover in word games. "Nope! You have to say Caesar's Palace. And what's that famous painting by James Whistler?"

"The mother of Whistler," she said, and I knew she was putting me on. "It's Whistler's Mother, with apostrophe-ess," I said. It sounds off with of." "Well, some things sound funny with apostrophe-ess."

"For example?"

"Beware March's ides," she said.

"Caesar made me say it."

She had me again. Shakespeare must have known that "Beware March's ides" just wouldn't ring in the streets of ancient Rome. Caesar would have turned his deaf ear. After a moment's thought, I saw some logic in our usage. Apostropheess is right for people and animals, like "Halley's Comet" and "the horse's mouth," but not for inanimate things, like March with its ideas.

"Don't you see the pattern?" I said.

"We use apostrophe-ess for people, as in 'Murphy's Law.' Same for animals, as in 'the rabbit's ears.' But we use of for inanimate things. Instead of 'the wallet's owner,' we say 'the owner of the wallet.'"

"That explains the ides of March?" she said.

"Right. March is not a person or animal. Hours, days, and months can't own anything."

"What about 'Tuesday's child'? And 'a day's work' and 'tomorrow's news'?" My wife is an exceptional woman, specializing in exceptions. She had speared me again, and my moment's thought had turned out to be only the thought of a moment.

I decided to take "the ark of Noah" back to the wordshop for more study. When an exceptional thinker like my wife is around, it doesn't pay to give usage lessons off your head's top. And from now on I'll remember Murphy's other law: Beware the brides of March.
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Title Annotation:use of apostrophe in English language
Author:Smith, Wen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:588
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