grammar

The death of the apostrophe

I am the sort of person who tuts at a greengrocer’s apostrophe, though I wouldn’t go as far as the chap in Bristol. Mainly I don’t see what the big confusion is, the Ladybird Book of Spelling and Grammar has stood me in good stead for over 30 years and if you can pick the main points up from that it can’t be that difficult. However, I’m willing to concede there might be scope for confusion occasionally (more of which anon) and whether it’s hard to get right or not, do we actually need it? I started thinking about this after listening to Bill Bryson’s Journeys in English, in which he discussed the imminent death of the apostrophe which is clearly in difficulty and has only been around for a couple of hundred years anyway. More a passing fad than a rule set in stone.

The biggest ‘do we or don’t we’ is its (belonging to it) and it’s (it is or it was, a contraction like don’t). OneMonkey points out that it’s and its sound the same and we rarely struggle with verbal comprehension due to their different meaning. What is the apostrophe (or any punctuation) for? It’s to tell us how to read something out or to alert us to a different meaning. When we listen to someone we pick up on the different meaning without the aid of seeing the apostrophe so it can only be necessary to make us realise immediately how to pronounce it, to stop us hesitating over a sentence. As we’ve noted, its and it’s sound identical so it doesn’t apply here. However, consider: we need to read ahead to check we’ve read and understood the sentence correctly in order to read it out successfully. Same spelling, no modifying punctuation, different pronunciation and tense and yet we cope with that ‘read’. Do we need the apostrophe at all?

With don’t there’s no confusion if you take the punctuation away, I’m not aware of a word spelt dont that it could be mistaken for. The same goes for shan’t, didn’t, needn’t etc. With won’t and can’t you come up with the existing words wont and cant, pronounced differently but surely just as easy to spot the pronunciation from context as in my ‘read’ example above. I’m not about to say ‘as was his wont’ as though wont rhymes with don’t. And I can’t remember the last time I used cant in a sentence.

I had thought you’re and your sounded the same and so were currently distinguished by context in verbal communication, but I tried saying some examples: You’re off to Bradford on your own, are you? You’re responsible for your daughter. I’m now not 100% convinced I pronounce your and you’re quite the same, I don’t pronounce them consistently in the two examples given anyway (3 or 4 different pronunciations I think). They’re close though, even if not identical, and again we don’t usually struggle with them verbally.

Where I do struggle is the occasional uses that the trusty Ladybird guide doesn’t cover. My general rule is that if you know what something means, why you’re doing it, it’s easy to tackle previously unseen situations. But when I say I’m going to the doctors, am I saying a shortened form of ‘I’m going to the surgery belonging to the many doctors in the practice’ or ‘I’m going to the office of my GP’? That is to say, do I need to write doctors’ or doctor’s? At school I seem to remember being taught that words ending in s only have an apostrophe not ‘s to show possession, yet having worked at a university where medical teaching happened in St James’s (always with ‘s) I just followed the local convention and tried not to worry about it. Working my way through that I begin to see how its (belonging to it) looks like it should have an apostrophe to go with other belonging-to words like doctor’s, and it only makes sense if you consider that it follows yours and his.

In my lifetime ‘phone seems to have disappeared as punctuation indicating we’ve chopped the first part off telephone. I was taught to write it like that though I suspect it was old-fashioned even in the early 80s. Not so long ago I would have written ’80s there, now I hesitate and wonder if it’s necessary since you all know exactly what I mean if I drop the punctuation. Language changes, that’s one of the fascinating things about it, and while there are some things I would hate to lose, I value the connection with language more than any particular part of it. By which I mean, I like to know where words and phrases come from and I think it’s the sort of thing that should be taught to children – not only would it make some things easier to remember or work out, but it would also stop mixed metaphors or inappropriate phrases that get dropped in because people don’t actually know what they mean (I hasten to add I’m not claiming to be immune from such clumsy use on occasion). If by knowing what we’re trying to say and knowing how confusing it’s likely to be, we gradually agree to ditch the apostrophe (and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, we could keep it here and there if we particularly need it) that’s surely better than firmly resisting its demise simply because it’s a rule in a (relatively recent) grammar book.

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Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.