Church usage of the wayward apostrophe - Catholic Courier

Church usage of the wayward apostrophe

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, says he would nominate for sainthood the British author Lynne Truss, were she Catholic; nonetheless he calls down “blessings on her merry, learned head for the gift of her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”

That a book on such a dull, unexciting and unappealing subject as punctuation should become a best-seller here as well as in the United Kingdom bespeaks some mysterious, latent desire in all of us for stability in a changing world.

When we consider punctuation as it affects the titles of churches, for example, we find interesting divergences.

One mark of punctuation that pertains here is that little squiggle called the apostrophe, a word that originated in the Greek language and means a “turning away” — a sign of an omission or elision, as in “Mass will be held at 7 o’clock.” Generally everybody knows that “o’clock” means “of” the clock, or “according to the clock.”

Ms. Truss has a whole chapter on what she calls “The Tractable Apostrophe.” But I don’t find the apostrophe quite so manageable, docile, yielding or governable as that. Although some have called it by harsher terms, such as tart George Bernard Shaw’s reference to apostrophes as “uncouth bacilli,” I prefer to call it the “wayward apostrophe” because it seems so unruly and headstrong, appearing at times as the traditional “greengrocer’s apostrophe” in “apple’s for sale,” or the hairdresser’s sign confronting me on Main Street with “His and Her’s.”
Sometimes contractions, which require the apostrophe to mark omission, are shorn of it altogether, as in the nearby florist’s invitation, “Whether your a current customer or new customer, stop in and say hello and receive a rose with our compliments.”

Even under church auspices, the apostrophe can prove unruly. Last summer, for example, the august Jesuit publication America, in a rare moment of nodding, identified a photo as that of ordinands prostrate during an ordination ceremony “at St. Peters’ Basilica.”

Most 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 such churches appear 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 altogether by jettisoning what is popularly called the possessive case.

When I was a boy in Rochester, for example, our family would annually attend devotions to St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady, 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, but no St. Anne’s in Rochester, only “St. Anne.”

In Father Robert McNamara’s history of the diocese, you will find, similarly, that St. Monica’s in Rochester is now St. Monica; St. Salome’s in Irondequoit is now St. Salome; and St. Helen’s in Gates is now St. Helen. Only St. Patrick has, so to speak, held his own, for there are eight St. Patrick’s parishes and but one St. Patrick in Cato. Almost all of the 15 churches dedicated to St. Mary are popularly in the possessive case.

According to the Stylebook on Religion of Catholic News Service in Washington, “it is preferable to use parish when referring to the organization or congregation, reserving church for the building used for worship.” But that recommendation does not seem to be followed here, where local custom and tradition — and sound — play a great role.

Furthermore, removal of the fractious apostrophe may arise from confusing 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 experts have estimated that only 40 percent of the genitives are strictly possessive, and the others are split up among what grammarians call subjective genitive, objective genitive, descriptive genitive, and appositive genitive, which is periphrastic in form. Confusing?

When I say, for example, that my parents’ church was Corpus Christi, I do not mean that they “owned” or ” possessed” it. I have indicated a relationship that was descriptive rather than possessive. And that, I believe, is what most parishioners or congregants understand about the patron saints of their parishes. The saints do not “own” the churches, parishes, or congregations.

It is local customs and traditions — and especially the sound of the saint’s or saints’ names (as with Peter and Paul, which in Rochester and Elmira telephone directories, seem to present difficulties) — that are critical.

But whether the apostrophe, that wayward mark of punctuation some consider doomed to extinction within the next 50 years, is present or absent in the title of a church is far less meaningful than the presence or absence, in the community of the parish, of the love that “endures.”

McManus, a former Rochesterian, now lives in Venice, Fla.

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