Q: I’m editing a book and am not sure how to punctuate a sentence used by one of the authors: “I was at my wit’s end.” Is it “wit’s end” or “wits’ end”? I figure you’d know!
A: Either one is OK (“I was at my wit’s end” or “I was at my wits’ end”).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only the singular “wit’s end,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives both singular and plural.
The Oxford English Dictionary includes both too. It says the expression means “utterly perplexed; at a loss what to think or what to do.” The OED adds that the phrase is often written in the genitive plural (wits’), even in reference to a single person.
Either way, you need the possessive apostrophe.
Interestingly, we have here both “wit” (intelligence, keenness of perception) and “wits” (mental faculties). That explains the idiom about being “scared out of my wits.”
However, it also implies that there might be a slight difference in meaning between “wit’s end” and “wits’ end.” Have you exhausted your ability to think, or have you gone nuts?
But perhaps this is nit-picking. In fact, forget I ever mentioned it!
If you’d like to read about a related subject, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year concerning the expression “to wit.”