The great apostrophe war

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 05, 2007 2:01 PM

Poor Steve Harrelson. He's a state representative from Texarkana, Ark., and he agreed to sponsor a little ol', supposedly innocuous resolution at this year's session of the Arkansas legislature when BAM!

The Honorable from Texarkana found he'd wandered smack dab into the middle of the Great Apostrophe War, which has been going on since there was an apostrophe to war over.

Mr. Harrelson was just trying to do an old family friend a favor, and all punctuation broke loose. The friend is Parker Westbrook, a collector of Arkansiana who's usually in the vicinity when this state's distinctive history, language, politics or culture in general comes into disputed play.

Good ol' Parker long ago took a firm stand in the grammatical war over whether the possessive of this state's name should be spelled Arkansas'or Arkansas's.

Mr. Westbrook favors Arkansas's with the final s.Indeed, he's made it something of a personal crusade. Which explains why he called on Rep. Steve Harrelson to further his cause by proposing that Arkansas's be declared the official possessive of the state's name. Little did Steve Harrelson realize he was walking into a linguistic minefield.

In this statewide civil war over the proper possessive of Arkansas, both sides fire all kinds of citations and references at each other like artillery barrages. The humble little apostrophe, a mere squiggle on the page, seems to set off the fiercest emotions among grammarians.

The Great Apostrophe War has even been known to break out sporadically here at the statewide paper. Last time, it was touched off by a polite letter from The Honorable and eloquent Buzz (formally Morris) Arnold, federal appellate judge, scholar and language maven.

His Honor urged us to tack an s on to the sobriquet that appears just under our name on the front page: Arkansas' Newspaper. I prefer Arkansas's myself, but long ago resigned myself to having lost that fight.

Indeed, I've become almost fond of that grammatical barbarism. Maybe because it's emblematic of this state's gritty determination to go its own way, thank you, no matter what the prevailing fashion. Have you ever had a favorite shirt with a small irregularity in it, or a wobbly table with one leg shorter than the others that's always been in your kitchen? To fix it would be a kind of sacrilege, an offense against tradition.

So it is with Arkansas'. The missing s is a silent tribute to this state's mule-stubborn independence where language (and so much else) is concerned. It lets you know where you are. Welcome to the frontier, pilgrim.

I still have a little coffee table, a souvenir of the time when Danish Modern was all the rage, with a neat, professional saw cut in it, a reminder of my carpentry skills when I was helping the boy - who now has two boys of his own - build a racer for the Soapbox Derby. I was chagrined when it happened, but I wouldn't trade that cut in the table for anything now. It's acquired a sentimental value. That's how I've come to feel about that final, absent s in Arkansas' Newspaper.

But I was grateful to Judge Arnold for raising this question still again. Such disputes give us inky wretches something to argue about when lesser issues grow tiresome, like world peace or the future of Western Civilization, such as it is.

Happily, this debate over the correct placement of the apostrophe is inexhaustible, mainly because there is no universally accepted way of spelling the possessive of Arkansas, or about using the apostrophe in general.

To quote the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "There never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear-cut and known and understood and followed by most educated people."

This free-for-all goes a long way back. And may have a long run ahead of it, breaking out in schools, newspapers, libraries, at the family dinner table and now in the Legislature, all to no clear end. This debate surely is To Be Continued. Which should be educational. And fun. Not a minor achievement for one little ol' punctuation mark. How 'bout them apostrophes!