I really am fretting—about the apostrophe in the phrase life’s short.
The whole anxiety-ridden episode began innocently enough: I was flipping through a fashion magazine and noticed a Banana Republic advertisement that said “Life’s short. Wear a mini.” While I’m not particularly interested in miniskirts from Banana Republic, I was reminded of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Life’s Short, Call Now.”
As I was singing along to the song in my head, my inner grammar Gestapo started shouting, “The apostrophe in life’s short is incorrect!” I fought back against the dark forces of this linguistic secret police by exclaiming “Temporal expression exception!”
Yet, I knew I was wrong. A temporal expression, or time expression, allows segments of time to possess something, even though time cannot technically own anything.
This month’s agenda includes several meetings, two corporate parties, and one bingo night.
As the autumn sun slipped behind the lake, evening’s splendor gave way to the shadow of night.
The noun life represents a time span, but life’s short doesn’t qualify as a temporal expression because the apostrophe s isn’t indicating possession: it is an informal contraction for life is.
The apostrophe s is usually only used as a contraction when it is combined with the pronouns he, she, or it.
He’s going to the store.
She’s walking the dog.
The party is tonight. It’s going to be fun.
Still, there’s another loophole: artistic expression! Art does not need to be grammatically correct if the artist breaks the rules with purpose. In fact, many great songs are anything but the Queen’s English. So, Bruce Cockburn shall forever escape scrutiny from the language law enforcers.
However, I’m afraid that Banana Republic won’t receive the same leniency because advertisements are still business communications regardless of the level of creativity shown or entertainment provided. As such, organizations should avoid informal grammar unless they are deliberately using a spelling or rhyme contrivance related to a brand or product, such as Ore-Ida’s slogan They’re not just alrighta, they’re Ore-Ida.
Banana Republic’s informal contraction doesn’t count as a deliberate contrivance because it is not related to the company or clothing being advertised. In addition, the message doesn’t change if it is written as “Life is short. Wear a mini.”
Deep breath. Yes, I know, that is a lot of worry for one little apostrophe. Time to listen to some music. Hmm, maybe “It Don’t Come Easy” by Ringo Starr or “We Gotta get Outta this Place” by the Animals.