language

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.

Autocorrecting my way to poetry

It used to be that I only encountered autocorrect at work, when I sometimes had to use Microsoft Word. Irritating, but infrequent. I didn’t use predictive text on my phone, and I was still on the basic version of my web-based email service (and I tend to write these posts, and many other pieces of writing, in Vim. If I want to get WYSIWYG I go for LibreOffice and so far that hasn’t forced any autocorrect facility on me). Not any longer, however, and it’s providing an ongoing source of fascination.

What is the postcow that my phone’s predictive text keeps insisting I put letters in? Or perhaps the more relevant question would be where is it? Is there somewhere in the world where it makes more sense than a postbox or is it the result of mischievous programmers? When I try to refer to someone as nosy, is the change to norw an attempt to steer me away from being unkind, or does it assume I’m trying to say Norwegian and just haven’t got to the end of it yet? I’m imagining Jesusel, which is the phone’s replacement for the more mundane kestrel, as some kind of avenging angel, but really the bird of prey is by far the more frequent winged visitor to my neighbourhood.

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I can’t believe they left me out of the dictionary

The word marmalade baffled my phone completely and it gave me one of its frequent ‘?spell’ messages. As well as being an item I might conceivably want to ask OneMonkey to pick up from the shop while he’s out, Marmalade is the everyday name of our cat so it comes up in conversation a lot and I had to programme it in. Similarly, for pottering (as in around town, or in the garden) its only suggestion was routering. The stored dictionary clearly isn’t on British English.

We’ve had a tablet computer for a while now, handy for web-browsing and music but not much else. On there, I’m forced to use the allegedly advanced version of the email software, which includes it trying to give me three words I might be struggling to type. Since I would be happier if keyboards were generally like the ZX Spectrum‘s tactile loveliness, I don’t get on well with touch screens and I’m all for shortcuts to save me typing each individual letter. However, when it doesn’t suggest David even when I’ve typed Davi so far, and at every instance of Christmas it tries to get me to use Christian instead, it’s not much help. I do seem to have taught it OneMonkey, however (don’t ask me how) which it now proffers at the most innappropriate moments.

I had an impulse to try poetry using the tablet’s email suggestions, selecting the one in the middle of the three (which I assume is the one it considers most likely) every time I began to type the next word or, even better, when it suggested a follow-on word immediately. Here’s what happened when I tried I wandered lonely as a cloud (by typing on successive lines I, W, L, A, A C then choosing the middle of the 3 words till I’d had enough):

In the first time to the first time to the first time
With the first time to the first time
Line of the first time
And I am not the first
A copy of the first

A writer could have a lot of fun with that…

Accents and globalisation part 3: voice recognition technology

OneMonkey raised the issue of voice recognition changing people’s accents and vocabulary, as they modify their speech in order to be recognised by their gadgets. As I don’t have a smart phone and can’t imagine giving voice commands to inanimate objects I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. I only have a couple of bits of anecdotal evidence about people with strong accents not being understood by phones and tablets, and a particularly trying afternoon where I failed to make the HMRC automated phone service understand a single phrase I said (I suspect they do it on purpose – it is entirely possible that the big companies we see as tax-dodgers have tried to register properly but been thwarted by the byzantine complications of HMRC bureaucracy). None of the situations I’m thinking of resulted in anyone modifying their speech, they just gave up on voice recognition.

Presumably voice recognition on, say, phones is calibrated to a particular mode of speech and pre-programmed with a certain vocabulary. If you stray too far outside either of those it will struggle. Anyone who tries it and fails spectacularly is likely to give up on it as unsuitable, but I imagine if it mostly recognises what you say except for a few words you might try modifying those words until it could handle them. I modify written words, both vocabulary and sentence structure, for texting and tweeting. Naturally, I’m quite verbose (no need to be polite, I know you’ve noticed) and I often write a tweet the way I want to say it then rearrange, shorten, replace ‘placed’ with ‘put’ etc to get within my character limits. I’m not aware of it spilling over into other areas of life, however, and with written words I think it’s easier to keep separate vocabulary pots. In speech it’s easier to get into habits, and if you start pronouncing a word slightly differently you may find that becomes the way you unconsciously do it. The two areas I can think of it happening are where a) a particular accent pronounces the same word very differently from the standard (e.g. bus) or b) an accent doesn’t clearly distinguish between words that the standard does differentiate (e.g. look, luck). It would be fascinating to see how the widespread use of voice recognition changes natural speech over the next decade.

Accents and globalisation part 2

Further musings on the English language sparked off by listening to Bill Bryson’s Journeys in English last week. This time I want to talk about written vs spoken English in terms of standard use.

Towards the end of the programme they were discussing possible future directions for English. The rise of literacy was mentioned as having changed things somewhat – rather than passing things on verbally, people can read information. Written English has a standard form, a ‘correct’ form that we’re taught and tested on at school, and it’s relatively slow to change. It helps to homogenise the language and stamp out regional forms. The more people read standard English the more it influences the way they formulate their own sentences. The rise of the internet, at first glance, seemed to make that even more likely as international English-speakers read American newspaper websites or the BBC.

However, the more I thought about internet trends (because I know about them, and what the youth are up to. Oh yes) the more I thought about non-standard communication. I might generally write this blog in standard English as I do my usual translation from Yorkshire to proper English in my head, but I’m a lot less formal on sentence structure than I could be and plenty of people write blogs in their own dialects. Then there’s the recorded voice. In the same way that TV, films and radio have an influence on people’s accents and vocabulary, popular podcasts and vlogs will no doubt influence others, but primarily they allow the presenter’s accent to remain in place, maybe introducing their listeners to a new word or phrase here and there.

It remains to be seen how English changes and adapts over the next fifty or a hundred years but if nothing else we’ll have plenty of recordings of how people sounded in the early twenty-first century. I might even add to that myself and record a few more stories to add to the ones you can already listen to.

Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.

 

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.

Easter holidays and productivity

I’ve almost caught up on the insane amount of things I’ve been trying to fit into the last few weeks, now my Easter holidays are done. For those still relaxing, here’s a couple of things for you to check out.

My MOOC participation moves on to creative writing soon, with an Open University course via FutureLearn (begins April 28th), which you can look into here. Free, so probably worth a go – almost any course in an area you’re interested in will have something new for you to learn, some new connection to make, or at least will remind you of stuff you’d forgotten. In the meantime, the OU has a few free creative writing resources available here.

I came across an online vocab test recently which was quite fun and apparently feeds into someone’s research too. Reassuringly it claims I’m at the higher end of my age group, as you’d hope from someone who reads as much as I do and has writing pretensions. Have a go, and learn new words by looking up all the ones it lists that you don’t recognise. Then (if you have a decent enough memory) do the test again next week, hope enough of the list is repeated (OneMonkey’s list wasn’t the same as mine but there was a lot of overlap) and feel smug.

Right, I have tea to drink, a jam doughnut to eat and lectures on American Capitalism to listen to. Oh the hedonism.