David Walchak is a senior at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. He has a proposal for a tiny change in spelling conventions that will enhance semantic clarity in certain situations. He writes:
I was trying to take notes for European History the other day and ran into a clarity issue that I had trouble resolving. I was trying to describe the legal situation of peasants in the middle ages. I wrote this sentence in my notes:
The peasants of the middle ages were under their lords' legal jurisdiction.That sentence is not quite clear. It is unclear how many lords each peasant had (one). So I rephrased: The peasants of the middle ages were under their lord's legal jurisdiction.This is more clearly wrong the previous attempt, it implies that there is only one lord for all the peasants. This conundrum led me to a grammar invention–the paired apostrophe. The paired apostrophe is used to imply singular possession of many people. Here is how rewrote the sentence: The peasants of the middle ages were under their lord's' legal jurisdiction.I think this works, though it basically functions as a replacement for the use of respective. Here's a final example: All the kids told stole their parent's' car.It could be rewritten, All the kids stole their respective parents' cars and be totally understandable. I guess I at least cause a net-gain in word economy.
Well, I'll tell you three things about this, and about David.
One: his semantic insight is quite correct. From The peasants of the middle ages were under their lords' legal jurisdiction doesn't make it clear that each peasant had only one lord, and The peasants of the middle ages were under their lord's legal jurisdiction does seem to entail that there was only one lord, and the only way to be pedantically accurate here is to use respective. It might help, if you are prepared to treat jurisdiction as a count noun, to pluralize it: The peasants of the middle ages were under their lords' legal jurisdictions doesn't rule out the multi-lord interpretation but it suggests that for each lord there was a separate jurisdiction, which helps a bit.
Two: don't bet even a dime on David's innovative apostrophe convention ever catching on. English spelling is famously resistant to reform, and this would be a fiddly little modification of the utmost subtlety and frankly it hasn't got a snowflake's chance in a forest fire of gaining acceptance. It is DOA; no one will go for it. Fuhgeddaboudit, Dave.
Three: David (mark my words) is probably going to be a linguist in a few years when he has a couple of degrees and considers choosing a career. He certainly has the makings. Even to have noticed this subtle difficulty about clear and accurate expression in Standard English puts him ahead of the pack. David is one clever lad. I take my hat off to Winnetka, Illinois, if this is the caliber of what its high schools can produce. David is one smart young dude, and wins this month's Language Log Precocity Prize. He gets a year's free subscription to Language Log and a lapel pin. Though we seem to have run out of lapel pins.