Pity the poor apostrophe. Even in this, the jolliest of seasons, its traditional role is misused, abused, and forgotten. As holiday poems, greetings, and lyrics become commonplace expressions, their apostrophes often get battered or shoved aside.
Let’s start with “tis the season.” It really should be “’tis the season,” because “’tis” is an old contraction of “it is,” with the apostrophe representing the dropped “i.” (That may also be one of the earliest examples of words that were scrunched together, a practice now rampant, as in “minivan,” “airstrike,” and “firetruck.”) But it’s just as frequently rendered without its apostrophe, and no one is less jolly because of its absence.
The same is true of “Twas the night before Christmas.” It should be “’Twas the night before Christmas,” a contraction of “It was.” The real title of the poem, generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and a handwritten version clearly shows the apostrophe at the beginning of the first line.
At this time of year, children are told to “be good for goodness sake,” or Santa will deliver unto them only a lump of coal. “Goodness” is a possessive—children must be good for the sake of goodness—and there really should be a good apostrophe there. But in one of those quirks that English loves so well, it’s just an a apostrophe—not an apostrophe plus “s” that usually follow a plural. Thus “be good for goodness’ sake.” That apostrophe is also being lost, but with it goes another small piece of literacy.
Now, for the corker, let’s look at the standard ecumenical well-wishing phrase. Is it “seasons greetings,” “season’s greetings,” or “seasons’ greetings”? Well, there’s an argument for each of them, depending on how one views the role of the “season.” If “seasons” is being used merely as a descriptive adjective for “greetings,” you could get away without any apostrophes. You could think of this time of year as just one season—after all, “season” indicates just a period of time—use “season” as a singular possessive, and defend “season’s greetings.” Or, if you’re being truly inclusive, you could say that this is not one season, but several—one each for those who celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, New Year’s Day, or any other holiday that falls around this time—and make “seasons” a plural possessive: “seasons’ greetings.”
What you shouldn’t be able to get away with, though, is “season greetings,” which isn’t idiomatic or grammatically correct, though you’ll see that, too.
And it should be “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day,” and even just plain “New Year’s.” Never plural, never descriptive. Purely possessive.
Here’s hoping that your holidays are filled with all the fixins. Er, fixin’s. Fixins’?
Aw, heck. Here’s hoping that your holidays are filled with joy.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.