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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

Apostrophe, where art thou?

Today's churches are missing the mark


Bishop Matthew Harvey Clark of the Rochester, N.Y., Roman Catholic diocese, knows the vertiginous changes that affect the modern church: the dwindling supply of priests, the falling church attendance, the ravages of the sex abuse crisis and the increasing demands for lay ministries.

Just last October he joined the New York State delegation of Catholic bishops, under the leadership of the archbishop of New York, who travel every five years to the Vatican for ad limina (or “to the thresholds of the apostles”) visits to report to various church departments on the condition of their dioceses.

At the end of days spent with officials, including a personal meeting with the Holy Father, he found himself, after his prayers, relaxing with Eats, Shoots & Leaves, modestly called by its UK publisher (Profile) “The Runaway #1 British Bestseller” and by its U.S. publisher (Gotham) “The #1 New York Times Bestseller.” It is a book on punctuation that, in the words of Bishop Clark, “ I never knew … could be so much fun.”

This manual did turn heavenward the thoughts of Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes. If the British author of the punctuation book, Lynne Truss, were a Catholic, McCourt would gladly have nominated her for sainthood, McCourt said. In any case he would call down “blessings on her merry, learned head for the gift of her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” which takes its title from the delightfully mispunctuated fragment of the description of a Chinese panda.

Of the discrete marks of punctuation (comma, colon, period, hyphen, etc.) considered, perhaps the unruly apostrophe is most relevant to churches.

Ms. Truss has a whole chapter on what she calls “The Tractable Apostrophe,” a word from the Greek that means a “turning away”: a sign of an omission or elision of letters. But I don’t find the apostrophe quite so manageable, docile, yielding or governable as she. I prefer to call it the “wayward apostrophe” because it seems so disorderly and headstrong, appearing at times in the traditional “greengrocer’s” form (“apple’s for sale”) or the hairdresser’s (“His and Her’s”). Sometimes contractions, which require the apostrophe, are embarrassingly shorn of it altogether.

Even under church auspices, the apostrophe can prove unruly. Last summer an august Jesuit weekly, which shall be nameless, in a most unusual moment of nodding, identified a photo as that of ordinands “at St. Peters’ Basilica.”

Indifferent Catholics are as aware, of course, of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome as they are of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Rarely do these churches appear, as they might, without an apostrophe, in periphrastic form, as the Cathedral of St. Patrick or the Basilica of St. Peter.

What may be detected today, in the titles of churches dedicated not to mysteries in the life of Our Lord or the Virgin Mary but to individual saints, is a trend to eliminate the troublesome apostrophe by jettisoning what is popularly called the possessive case.

When I was a boy in Rochester, many years ago, our family would annually attend devotions to St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady, held in a frame church called St. Anne’s. Today in the Rochester Catholic Directory, you will find St. Anne’s in Palmyra, St. Ann’s in Hornell and St. Ann’s in Owasco, other towns or cities of the diocese, but no St. Anne’s in Rochester. Now, rather, it is St. Anne Church. As Ms. Truss notes, even tastes in punctuation change.

Of course, the disappearance of the unruly apostrophe may be the result of having confused the role of the possessive case. It was the Anglican bishop and grammarian Robert Lowth in 1752 who first called what had been the genitive case the “possessive.” That may have contributed to the erroneous belief that the only function of the possessive is to show ownership.

It does indicate that, of course, but not exclusively. Some language experts estimate that only 40 percent of the genitives are strictly possessive. The others are split among what are called subjective genitive (“the pastor’s request”), descriptive genitive (“my parents’ parish,” “St. Anne’s Church”), objective genitive (“the bishop’s resignation”), and appositive genitive (“the title of vicar general”), which is periphrastic in form. There are more, too. Confusing?

Apart from what he wrote in his diocesan newspaper about his Roman thoughts at the end of the day, I do not presume to be privy to Bishop Clark’s innermost ideas.

I am confident, though, that the plight of the apostrophe in the name of one or another of his parishes in Rochester, far from the Eternal City, is, as it should be, far less meaningful than the presence or absence in the community of that parish of the love, proclaimed in Bishop Clark’s coat of arms, that “endures forever.”

E. Leo McManus, a native Rochesterian, lives now in Venice, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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