Thursday 12 January 2012

The Politics (and lies) of the Apostrophe

Waterstone's are now Waterstones. They've decided to drop the apostrophe. I was asked to go on World at One today to discuss this with John Humphrys. John's position is that the apostrophe saves us from some ambiguity and this is a good thing. Anything that saves us from some ambiguity is a good thing. What's more, there are rules. All we have to do is learn the rules. I don't want to misrepresent him, so apologies if I have.

My position is that the apostrophe is on the way out. It's an inconsistent item anyway; it was invented by printers - not grammarians or linguists - and like a lot of other 'rules' of punctuation is modified by use. No bad thing.

Apparently this resulted in a World at One postbag bigger than the discussions about torture or corruption in cricket. So is there a politics of punctuation?

Well, in a way, there is. We're talking here about 'orthography' - the appearance of the written text. Those who  state that a) there are rules and b) they should stay the same way, don't have history on their side. The history of how the apostrophe has been used and not used makes for a little essay in itself. As it happens, most people find the detail of such histories deeply boring, but the story of irregularity and inconsistency in those stories is the interesting thing here. I will try to keep this brief.

But first, the inconsistencies - the stuff that makes it hard for us to learn. We say as a general 'rule' that we use an apostrophe for 'elision' (when we leave stuff out) and for possessives (when we want to indicate that someone or something owns someone or something). So when we write 'haven't' - that's supposed to show we've 'left out' the 'o' of not. When we write 'Michael's writing' that's supposed to show that the writing is possessed by Michael. He owns it. So far so good.

But is all possession marked with an apostrophe? Oh no. So if we use what have been called the 'possessive pronouns', its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs - no apostrophe! Why not? er...well, no one really knows.Look at eighteenth century texts and you will find phrases like, let's say, 'the lands were her's'. Even Mr Strict, Bishop Lowth, the inventor of crap grammar, used an apostrophe there. So, if it was a 'rule' then, when did it become a 'rule' to not use an apostrophe in, 'yours' or 'ours'? Answer, it's only a 'rule' if you're the kind of person who thinks this sort of stuff is a 'rule' and not, what I would call a 'convention'.

And if a person thinks that there is then a 'rule' which says possessive pronouns don't take apostrophes, I'd say - not so easy, pal. There are other things we call 'pronouns' eg anybody, somebody, someone, anyone, everybody, everyone...and whaddyaknow, the convention is that they DO take a possessive apostrophe! Oh yes, here it is 'everybody's clothes', 'somebody's car'.

And now let's go back to the apostrophe of elision which we tell children is to mark missing out a letter. Well, in fact, to mark something missing, the printers invented quite a lot of different things which have changed over the years. Because we used to sound out the 'e' in 'loved', if you wanted to indicate that it shouldn't be sounded out, you wrote 'lov'd'. It was, if you like, a representation of speech. But a selective one. Now that most speakers of English don't sound out the 'e', someone decided that that apostrophe was redundant. Hurrah - its use wasn't a rule after all. It reflected changing use.

Now let's go to such uses as 'it's' , 'haven't' and 'ain't'. Well, 'it's' is mysterious because it represents two distinct forms 'it is' and 'it has' but when we write it, we only put in one apostrophe. OK, we might say, it represents the common sound of 'it's' when something or somethings are missing.

'Haven't' is slightly different because the printers decided that the 'n' had to be shoved up against the 'e'. Now,we're getting into a fairly arbitrary rules of page layout and nothing much to do with ambiguity or any such. (John mentioned 'there', 'they're' and 'their', and in some accents 'we're' 'were' and 'where' overlap too. But the overall usage (dependent on context) is of much more importance in these examples than the use of the apostrophe. Thus, 'there' and, let's say, 'theyre' and 'their' would pose no problems of ambiguity on the page.

But what of 'don't? This stands for two phrases: 'do not' and 'does not' (in the dialect usage, 'he don't like it.') I say 'stands for' but in truth it may not. It is quite possible that we should regard the usage of 'don't' as its own word. It's possible that when the innovation of using 'don't' in the many ways we use it,(English didn't always have these ways), that it came in as the sound 'dont' with nothing left out, as it were, and it was only the printers who decided that it was  'contraction' of , say 'doesn't' . (The history of how 'do' came to be used in the ways we use it today, is quite complicated!)

Meanwhile,what's happening in the real world, away from rarified conversations on the World at One? First of all, many different kinds of sign-makers and public displayers of language are making up their own rules. Saints' names in the names of churches and places are becoming increasingly apostrophe-less. Same goes for shop names - thus Waterstones but also the names of firms and many other titles. The people who own the names are doing it themselves. They're not waiting for permission from someone who thinks there are 'rules'. At one level this expresses who has power in society. Waterstones have the power to change their title. Ms Smith who is writing for a job doesn't and will have to write 'Ms Smith's letter' or some such or she is deemed to have had a defective education, or worse.

More politics.

And again,meanwhile, in the explosion of the written word with texting, blogging, forums, chat rooms and the like, people are making up their own rules, they're testing each other's tolerance of what's acceptable and what isn't. Hundreds of new abbreviations are coming in and, I notice, the apostrophe is losing out. It's becoming fiddly to bung in an apostrophe as you're thumbing away on your mobile or whatever.

So, my guess is that, the usage of the apostrophe is slipping away. It will be used less and less and it won't actually matter. The kinds of ambiguity that John Humphrys was talking about are, in the general run of things , trivial or easy to overcome - which is precisely what we find in texting and the like. (In fact, a pedant might argue that John's own name ought to have an apostrophe as it's really 'Humphry's son'. But for some reason, the 'rule' was never applied to 'Davis' 'Jones' 'Williams' and the like which are all technically 'patronymics'.

By the way that complicated stuff about plural possessives 'the boys' caps' - meaning two or more boys' caps only became a 'rule' in the nineteenth century. Up until then, people like Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe managed to get by without worrying about it.

And in case you're wondering if the decade was the 60's or the 60s, the answer is, it all depends on the house style of the whoever is publishing it. Again, it's a trade matter, not a grammatical one of rules.

And if you're wondering why the possessive apostrophe came in in the first place? Because most nouns used to express possession with an ending 'es' with the 'e' sounded out. 'dogges ears' - with the 'e' heard. That sounded out 'e' started to disappear just as the first efforts to standardise orthography came in so with the 'elision rule' they reckoned that they ought to mark the 'loss' of the sounded 'e'. So it wasn't a rule of possession after all! It was the old elision 'rule'. So when you hear people say that the apostrophe is for 'possession' as I did all through this article, I was talking nonsense. It was the 'rule' of elision but as with vast amounts of so-called grammar and information about language, we believe in the necessity of lying to children - or just foisting our ignorance on to them. That's because the old idea of 'investigating language' rather than laying down the rules has gone out the window.

If anyone doubts the possibility of the apostrophe fading away, you might like to know about the hours, days, weeks - nay months - I and my contemporaries used to spend, learning how to punctuate addresses on envelopes and letters. What happened? It all got junked by people in business. Punctuation is ultimately about power: about who has the power to make decisions.