High Five((')s) for Science

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Ten days ago I was returning to the US from Europe, and the first and main leg of the trip was a flight from Amsterdam to Houston. After passing through customs and immigration in Houston, I was stripping off shoes, belt, wallet, fillings, etc. to walk through the security scanners and re-enter the gate areas for my connecting flight. The scanners were being worked by a few twenty-somethings, and one of them was enthusiastically telling the others, "You know, today's Darwin's 200th birthday! High five for science!"

He was given a slightly bemused high-five by one of his coworkers, and then he turned to another with the same celebratory request, but sadly the other coworker, conforming more to my mental Texan stereotype, wouldn't meet his eyes and wouldn't high five him.

"I'll give you a high five for science!" I called out happily. "That's what I'm talkin' about!" he said, and so after exchanging a high five for science with a perfect, if slightly goofy, stranger, I trotted off to my next five hours of travel feeling all warm and fuzzy. I didn't have the heart to tell him he was off on the birthday by ten days; hopefully he's exchanging high-fives today as well. Maybe he's exchanging high-fives for emancipation today instead.

To give this post some mildly linguistic content, I refer you back to its header, which I assert would be a perfectly grammatical headline in any of its permutations: with or without the -s, and with or without the apostrophe…


High Five for Science

That's what I got/did. It could also be an imperative, a quote from my subject.

High Fives for Science

I witnessed multiple high fives for science, so equally accurate.

High Five's for Science

This one is fine read as (A/The) High Five is for Science; it kind of reifies my high five but plenty of headlines exist on this model.

I only bring it up because I've been interestedly following AZ's apostrophe posts on the LLog of late. The capital city of my home province has an apostrophe -'s at the end, and it's a matter of some import. St. John's, Newfoundland, where I'm from, forms a minimal pair with St. John, New Brunswick, another town in a small province beginning with "New" in Atlantic Canada. That's why I was shocked and appalled to read, in a quote from Michael Quinion in Arnold's second piece:

Words when forming geographic names have lost their connotative aspects; the name is merely a label, and therefore ownership or association is no longer relevant.
Those who oppose losing the apostrophe may argue that the final "s" should then go, too, since you need both to mark possessives.

Enough people accidentally book flights to St. John when intending St. John's as it is, without stripping the latter of its genitive! (I presume the reverse flight-booking is also a problem.) Maybe we could get by without an apostrophe — but that -s has got to stay.


  1. jfruh said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    Surely someone must know the answer to this question. So English creates its genitive case by putting an s sound at the end of words, right? Why in English orthography is that s written with an apostrophe before it (or, in the case of a plural noun ending in s, just as an apostrophe, even if you pronounce an extra s sound)? Which use of the apostrophe came first — to mark the genitive case, or to mark a contraction? Do other languages do this?

  2. Dominic said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    jfruh, a very good question. All I can really add is that the genitive -s dates back to Old English (and probably its Germanic ancestors), and at that time the apostrophe was not used. It would have been completely unnecessary, as there was no confusing singular genitive with plural nominative; the closest you can come is with masculine nouns, whose gen. sing. ending is -es, and whose nom. pl. ending is -as. Therefore the apostrophe probably came into use as/once the case system collapsed into Middle English, to differentiate between the two cases (though perhaps it was not written until early Modern English?).

    This is a shot in the dark, but if I had to guess, I would say the apostrophe was used for contractions first. I say this because various abbreviations and ligatures dated back to Roman times at least, as a way of saving valuable space on parchment (the ampersand is an example). My guess is that the contraction apostrophe may have served a similar purpose, at whatever time it came into use.

  3. Mark P said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    I was told many years ago that it is, indeed, a contraction of "John his" to "John's". That might be folk etymology.

  4. goofy said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    The apostrophe was first used in English for elided letters, and its use to mark the genitive came later. It wasn't used to mark the plural genitive until the mid 19th century.

    "Charles his name" for "Charles's name" was used in the 16th-17th century, but it is probably a folk etymology.


  5. Ray Girvan said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    That might be folk etymology

    Yes indeed. I recall an example from school (1960s) and am sorry to see it repeated as recently as 1987 – New Junior English Revised (W.Haydn Richards, Walker Gordon et al) introducing genitive endings via an anecdote about "Henry Baker, His book" contracting to "Henry Baker's book" (see Google Books). That may have happened in that context, but it doesn't explain all genitive endings, such as their own accompanying examples of "the girl's hair" and "the week's work".

  6. AJD said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Mark P:

    That is folk etymology. People thinking that it was true might still be the reason for the apostrophe, though.

    Or it might just be that the genitive ending used to be the full syllable "-es", and when the vowel dropped out it was marked with an apostrophe—consider early modern spellings like "look'd", which are comparable.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    P.S. Looking closer at Google Books – apostrophe "his book" – this "X, his book" turning into "X's book" appears to have been a standard explanation for apostrophe development recycled via grammar texts since at least the 1800s.

  8. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    And there's an intriguing 's expanded as "his" even though the person is female: "Mrs. Sands his maide" (in Sir John Harington's biographical sketch about Dr. Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York, in his _A Supplie or Addicion to the Catalogue of Bishops to the Yeare 1608_; see page 164 of R. H. Miller's edition of 1979).

  9. Pat said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    The problem with the nominativization (etc.) of the genitive is then the genitive of the nominativized word. Uh, that's probably better illustrated with an example. "I ate a hamburger from Wendy's." Should that become "I ate a Wendy's's hamburger"? If you just leave it as is without the apostrophe-s marker you create a possible ambiguity in, say, "St. John's airport is much nicer than St. John's."

    Oh sure, you can typeset for aesthetics and just rewrite the ambiguous cases. But this is the Internet, people! No common sense allowed!

    (Maybe that should be degenitification?)

  10. Mr Punch said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Across the border in Quebec, of course, the apostrophes disappear. But then these are people who insist on translating "Nova Scotia" so it won't be in English.

  11. mollymooly said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    Whatever its origin as a noun case inflection, 's is now an independent clitic. "The king of Spain's daughter" is not Spain's daughter but the king's:

    [[The king of Spain]'s] daughter


    The king of [[Spain]'s] daughter

    The apostrophe does the job that brackets would do if we radically changed our writing system.

  12. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    Granted, I grew up on Canada's other coast, but I was always under the impression that the name of New Brunswick's largest city was written Saint John, not St. John. This makes it easier to distinguish New Brunswick's largest city from Newfoundland's (though I have no idea if that plays a role in the history of writing one of them with "Saint" and one with "St.").

  13. Lisa Bao said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Eee! I also consider St. John's, NF, my hometown, although I wasn't born there and only lived there for 5 years. Sadly my Canadian (not Newfie, alas) accent has been Easternified by the U.S.

    (Oh, it's NL now, isn't it. Darn. I do believe in political correctness, but I moved south across the border/sea just before the legislative change.)

  14. Robert Coren said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

    @AJD: I was wondering if the genitive had been -es in English at some point, as it in German, where it sometimes becomes -s (and at least at some point in the history of German orthography this was sometimes written -'s).

    @Pat: Well, what is the genitive of the name of the capital of Newfoundland? (Boston's mayor is named Menino; what's the name of St. John's['[s]]?)

    @Heidi: I don't think anyone is contemplating depriving St. John's of its s (and hence its genitive); if one were to follow Quinlon's directive it would become "St. Johns".

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Writing "St. John's's airport" makes me unaccountably happy, in much the same way as does writing "notwithstanding" or "e'en's glimmer". I do make the effort to restrain myself.

  16. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    In the DC metro area, we have, in MD and VA, respectively, Prince George's County and Prince William County, both named in the 1690's for princes living then across the pond, neither of whom visited, much less had title to the colonial land named in his honor.

    It's surprising how frequently the question is asked of local newspaper columnists as to why one prince enjoys an apostrophe and -s but not the other. Apparently, no one knows. We locals always assumed there had to be a reason, but, now, thanks to LL, I think the mystery is solved. Officials don't need no stinkin' reasons.

  17. Bill Ward said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

    There's another way to read "High Five's for Science" which explains a lot of greengrocers' apostrophes…

    Now let me preface this by saying that I'm not saying it's correct but I think there are people who would use the analogy of things like "mind your p's and q's" or "learn your 123's" or (and this is something there's a lot of disagreement about, but "TLA's are an annoying feature of modern life" (TLA = Three Letter Acronym, which is really an abbreviation not an acronym but that's a different battle) to justify an apostrophe in making a genitive of something that's more complicated than a single simple word.

    So, to such a person, "High Five's" is the plural form of the concept "High Five" as opposed to an individual act of high-fiving. And to some people, concepts seem to deserve an apostrphe when making the genitive form. It's a bit like the "fishes/fish" situation, where you need a plural for something more abstract. So it might mean multiple types of high fives, in this case perhaps high fives with several people rather than multiple high fives with one person.

  18. Tim said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    There is a street near where I used to live called "St. Georges". I always assumed it was meant to be French. Now I wonder if it just lost (or failed to acquire) an apostrophe.

  19. dr pepper said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    How about we all just agree to stop using the possessive apostrophe altogether and use "s" or "es" as needed. The apostrophe already has enough work to do.

  20. Mary Ellen Foster said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:55 am

    @Skullturf Q. Beavispants: As a Maritimer, I can confirm: the city in New Brunswick is definitely Saint John, written out fully with no abbreviations. Like

    @Mr Punch: It's not just in French that one translates Nova Scotia — for some reason it's also "Neu Schottland" in German. I don't know why it gets translated …

  21. Michael Quinion said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 4:13 am

    Regarding the comment by Robert Coren: 'I don't think anyone is contemplating depriving St. John's of its s (and hence its genitive); if one were to follow Quinlon's directive it would become "St. Johns".'

    It wasn't a directive of mine (I don't do directives and nobody would listen if I did), but a reference to the policy of the US Board on Geographic Names. Never fear, Canada is outside its remit. I did say that if possessives had no role in place names (the view of the former Secretary of the Board in an article in the Journal of the American Name Society in 2000), then by logic the "s" ought to go too, the marker being "'s", not the apostrophe alone. This was a little tongue in cheek, though I did note that medical terminology is tending this way (Down syndrome and Altzheimer disease, for example, are now increasingly used).

    See the last item in http://www.worldwidewords.org/nl/gzfz.htm#N1 for the full details.

  22. Jorge said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    It's also "Nueva Escocia" in Spanish. Just like "Nueva York", "Nueva Orleans", "Nueva Gales del Sur"… The question may be not why it gets translated, but why shouldn't it get translated.

  23. KCinDC said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    Jorge, the obvious difference from those other cases is that "Nova Scotia", the name used by the English-speaking inhabitants of the area in question, doesn't include any English words to be translated. It would be more like translating "Las Vegas".

  24. Jorge said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    There's also the case of "Newfoundland" = "Terranova". Seems like the area has a thing for Latin.

  25. Matt Heath said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    The American City of San Francisco is "São Francisco" in Portuguese, which I always thought was weird . I guess it's slightly different to "Nova Scotia" into French or German since it's a small change to hit a fairly familiar Portuguese phrase.

  26. Matt Heath said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    Ugh! Sorry for weird extra capitalisation of "City".

  27. Heidi Harley said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Just a quick note to Michael — my shock and appallation was pretty tongue-in-cheek; I know you weren't advocating de-genitivizing St. John's.

    I wonder if the trend to 'Down Syndrome' etc is connected to the fact that 'Syndrome' starts with an S itself, and so the the genitive -s can easily get lost in the coarticulatory jumble. It also reminds me of the loss of -ed in things like 'Ice Cream' (originally "Iced Cream", of course) and similar…

  28. Robert Coren said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    @Heidi: I wonder if the trend to 'Down Syndrome' etc is connected to the fact that 'Syndrome' starts with an S itself

    That wouldn't account for "Alzheimer Disease" (which I can't say I've ever heard, myself).

    @Michael Quinlon: Apologies. I was just trying to find an easy way to reference what Heidi had quoted, and I probably was guilty of sloppy reading and sloppy writing.

  29. Liz said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    RE: Down Syndrome and Alzheimer Disease, but not Lou Gerhig's Disease, the first two are named for the people who identified it and the standard has become that naming it doesn't mean you possess it. OTOH, Lou Gerhig did suffer from ALS, thus it remains, his disease with full rights to the apostrophe.

    But I realize I'm awfully late in my comments here.

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