Bob Ladd visited his doctor's office today. Which wouldn't normally be news for Language Log; but while waiting to be called he idly picked up a magazine, as one does. It was Birds, the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and he spotted a linguistically interesting item in an advertisement offering this:
5% off your next cottage holiday for Bird’s readers
Bob was truly puzzled by the spelling of the penultimate word. Rightly so, I think.
Here's what he thought about it, in his own words:
Question: Was this
- simply a hopeless misspelling (the so-called greengrocer's apostrophe) for the name of the magazine, so that the final phrase is intended as a compound analogous to Newsweek readers, or
- an attempt to signal possessive/genitive ’s on the end of the name of the magazine, so that the final phrase is intended as a phrase analogous to Newsweek’s readers?
If the latter, what would YOU have written? Birds’ ? Birds’s ? They're all awful.
This problem is comparable to the problem that Italian has with Preposition + Article contractions when the article is part of a proper name, like the newspaper La Repubblica. Do you write *il direttore della Repubblica (definitely not) or ?il direttore de la Repubblica (quite common even though de on its own doesn't really exist) or ??il direttore di la Repubblica (possible but marginal)?
I guess I'm inclined to think that it was case (b): Newsweek’s readers works because Newsweek ends in a letter other than s or the apostrophe. Mother Jones’ readers works because Jones is a name ending in s, and the apostrophe addition is generally OK with those. But Birds looks like a common noun, and although birds’ is grammatically permissible, it is the genitive plural of bird. Birds’ readers would have the nonsensical meaning "the readers of birds". So the writer struggled with his or her conscience.
Getting something that kept the form of the magazine name intact and added ’s to it would yield Birds’s. In fact with the title of the magazine were set in italics, the sentence would have been "5% off your next cottage holiday for Birds’s readers. That would be defensible. But it just looked too horrible (either to the writer or a subeditor) to be allowed in print, so they made an arbitrary choice out of the awful alternatives and did the wrong thing: they erased the first s.
Which shows us, I think, that faced with a set of terrible choices, people will make terrible decisions. What else could they do?