The peasants and their lords' jurisdiction(s)

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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.


  1. John Lawler said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    Yes, he certainly seems to display several of the Seven Warning Signs of Linguistics. Although New Trier is known for the brilliance of its students, whom I used to debate regularly when I was in High School back in the Middle Ages.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    If this happened, would it be regarded solely as a spelling change, or would it amount to recognising a separate syntactic category – the 'respective genitive plural'?

    Be interesting to know if there are any languages out there that mark this, either in spelling or syntax.

  3. Brett said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    New Trier High School is actually one of the most prestigious public high schools in America, with a very rigorous program in many subject areas. It's also so vast (I visited the campus when I was in high school, and there was more disused gymnasium space than there was total gym space at my own school, which was itself the largest facility in a medium-sized city) that it draws students from many of the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, not just Winnetka. My cousins who went to New Trier would probably assert that the really good students like Mr. Walchak mostly come from Wilmette.

  4. Sid Smith said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    During the Middle Ages, each lord had jurisdiction over his peasants.

  5. J Lee said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    I would hope one of America's best public schools would have taught the basics of a long period of the history of Western civilization before senior year.

    People seem to find it hard enough to correctly use apostrophe already — I just saw one misused in the original U.S. Constitution. I think casting 'lord' as indefinite singular clears up amibiguity: peasants were under the jurisdiction of a lord. Ostensibly this is not much clearer than his original, as it leaves the possibility of a sole lord for all peasants, but for that interpretation is pretty quickly dropped with contextual clues.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Sorry, when I said syntactic back there, I meant morphological. Though my question might not make much sense either way…

  7. marie-lucie said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    The Tsimshianic languages deal with genitives quite precisely.

    Consider Nisqa'a: (slightly simplified analysis)

    The boy is driving his father's boat

    Yukw-t ba'an-hl hlgu gat-hl boot-s nigwoot-t.
    PROG-3ERG run.TR-CON little man-CON boat-CON father-3S

    The boys are driving their father's boat (one father, one boat)

    Yukw-t ba'an-hl k'uba ii'uxwt-hl boot-s nigwoot-diit.
    PROG-3ERG run.TR-CON little man-CON boat-CON father-3P

    The boys are driving their father's boats (one father, two boats)
    Yukw-t hlo'ot'in-hl k'uba ii'uxwt-hl biboot-s nigwoot-diit.
    PROG-3ERG run.TR.P-CON little.P man.P-CON boat.P-CON father-3P

    The boys are driving their fathers' boats (two fathers, two boats)
    Yukw-t hlo'ot'in-hl k'uba ii'uxwt-hl qa-biboot-s qa-nigwoot-diit.
    PROG-3ERG run.TR-CON little man-CON RES-boat.P-CON RES-father-3P

    The prefix qa- is usually glossed as 'plural', but in fact means 'respective plural', since it is used only in a possessive context.

  8. Peter Harvey said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    Apostrophes? Abolish the damn things! How do I use a genitive with an apostrophe to describe the house of my parents-in-law?

  9. Max said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    david posted this on his blog:

  10. Kylopod said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    >Even to have noticed this subtle difficulty about clear and accurate expression in Standard English

    You mean clear and accurate expression in written Standard English. Apostrophes are, of course, inaudible in the spoken language.

  11. Jake Schneider said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    @Kylopod. Unless your name is Victor Borge and you speak with phonetic punctuation.

  12. Qov said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    Would the increase in clarity of expression make up for the inevitable appearance of signs advertising tomato's' and cucumber's' for sale?

  13. Joseph said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    >During the Middle Ages, each lord had jurisdiction over his peasants.

    Close, but there may be peasants without lords. How about "During the Middle Ages, every [or each] peasant was under their lord's legal jurisdiction."

  14. Josh said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    @Kylopod "Apostrophes are, of course, inaudible in the spoken language."

    I was going to say, how does one pronounce the double apostrophe? I'm reminded of Homer Simpson attempting to simultaneously pluralize and possessivize his neighbour's' surname. "In the eyes of God they'll be Flader'ses's!"

  15. Stephen Nicholson said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    Does this mean that there are languages more accepting to change than English? Or just that English's resistance is more well known.

  16. Mark F. said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    Stephen Nicholson — Unless I am mistaken, both Dutch and German have had spelling reforms implemented at some time in the past few decades. It took time to get everybody on board, but as I understand it the German scharfes-S's that I learned about in high school are things of the past.

  17. Jake Schneider said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    @Mark F.

    I can't speak for the Dutch reforms, but as for the new German spelling, it still uses "ß" instead of "ss" some of the time, after a dipthong or a "long" vowel. So, the familiar command "eat" is "ess," but the imperfect for "he ate" is still "er aß." My high school German classmates still laughed at that last verb form, with or without the scharfes S.

  18. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    There are some artificial developments.
    As we know, the writing is the codification of the spoken language; one by one. How it worked where that codification was made?
    We know also that Latin was the main language, on which the early linguists were based as a writing model of their spoken languages.
    Which was the part of the spoken language that they were not able to code?
    We certainly, from the linear point of view, can not have evidence of both spoken and writing language of the initial time, but we can analyze some dark parts of the English.
    Why writing English language has had a completely different codification compare with the other language of Europe? They were formed almost at the same time.
    The coding should be just one concept for both phonetic and writing, because, I think, that is also the way the brain codes concept. Codifying of two ore more concepts in just one spoken concept , or phonetic is the best way to confuse the process.
    So, consequently we have too many S's in English, wrong position of the adjectives, the "ing" forms,…
    An initial mistake will bring more confusing to the spoken language, not just after 500 years, but as well after 5000 years.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    I've occasionally had stupid conversations with Clare (Mrs Girvan) about whether "childrens" should be allowable as a plural plural for distinguishing two batches of children. For example – the contingency is remote – but suppose you invited the Children of Israel and the Children of Tama ("Darmok and Jalad at the Star of India, with their forks poised") out for a meal, would you tell the restaurant that the two Childrens would need different menus?

  20. Disfraz said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    Ray Girvan:
    Children sounds just enough like *childrum that this should take a faux-Latin plural. The two Childra will be needing their separate menus.

  21. Jack Collins said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    This reminds me of the ongoing debate I had with a copy editor at USA Today over the plural of curriculum vitae.

  22. Steve said,

    September 26, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    >if you are prepared to treat jurisdiction as a count noun

    It commonly is, in the sense of places where different laws apply. In that sense, we can talk about California and Texas as two different jursidictions. But it also is a count noun in the sense that David used the word. Here are two examples:

    “The ‘asset protection’ aspect of these foreign trusts arises from the ability of people, such as the Andersons, to frustrate and impede the United States courts by moving their assets beyond those courts' jurisdictions.” F.T.C. v. Affordable Media 179 F.3d 1228, 1240 (9th Cir.1999)

    “As relevant here, the Eleventh Circuit vacated, reasoning that § 1441 by its terms authorizes removal only of actions over which the district courts have original jurisdiction, and that, because the All Writs Act authorizes writs in aid of the courts' respective jurisdictions without providing any federal subject-matter jurisdiction in its own right, that Act could not support Henson' s removal from state to federal court.” Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. v. Henson 537 U.S. 28, 28, 123 S.Ct. 366, 367 (2002)

  23. Steve said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    On the other hand, if you use jurisdiction as a synonym for power, as in "This court doesn't have jurisdiction," it probably isn't a count noun.

  24. hoelt said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    How random! The first link for linguistics blog I click is a kid that goes to my high school.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:34 am

    The singular is not going to be ambiguous. It makes it clear each peasant has one lord, but nowhere implies there is only one lord in total.

    [Right; it doesn't actually entail that there is a one-lord total. But David noticed that it doesn't unambiguously rule it out either, and connected that to the obviously ambiguity-reducing role of the apostrophe, and wondered if that role could be extended. —GKP]

  26. Dierk said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    A perfect example of why there is differences in style between writers – and why there is a huge difference between a writer and somebody who writes. The former simply rewrites until it is easy to understand without sacrificing the contents to be delivered:

    a) The peasants of the middle ages were under their respective lord's legal jurisdiction.
    b) The peasants of the middle ages were under the legal jurisdiction of the lord presiding over the county they lived in.
    c) In the Middle Ages legal jurisdiction over peasants was given to each of their lords'.
    d) In the Middle Ages legal jurisdiction over peasants belonged to the lord of a county.
    e) see what Sid Smith wrote above.

    Personally I'd go with Sid Smith's rephrasing; or I'd try to rewrite the whole paragraph such that something like 'Legal jurisdiction was given to the lord presiding over a county, this included all peasants.' results.

  27. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 3:11 am

    @Atmar Ilias
    I found your post a little hard to follow in places, so may I ask for some further information? You seem to be expressing your frustration with the many quirks of the English language. Welcome to the club! The membership queue starts down the street and around the block :) I hope you acknowledge that there is some beauty and subtlety as compensation. But that applies also to every language on Earth.

    >The coding should be just one concept for both phonetic and writing,
    Is this comment about the spelling? A mess, I agree. But I am conflicted about changing to a more phonetic system. One the one hand more regularity and simplicity would help native and non-native speakers alike to learn to read and write in a shorter time and with fewer tears. On the other hand, I would regret the loss of linguistic history involved. Maybe that view is too elitist. I don't know.
    >So, consequently we have too many S's in English
    S=subject, or the sound 's' or the letter 's' or the possessive 's as well as the plural-s? I agree that the use of the apostrophe in written English is bizarre. I wonder if any other language has anything even remotely similar? Nevertheless I have learned to love it, and would be sorry to see it disappear (although there are signs that trend has already begun).
    >wrong position of the adjectives
    Do you mean the adjective is positioned before, rather than after, the noun? I think you will find there are many (including European) languages that do that too.
    >the "ing" forms
    Is this a reference to the notorious participle vs. gerund distinction? The whole premise of this is being questioned in this very forum, I notice. It can lead to some very arcane grammar rules, the details of which escape many (if not most) native English speakers, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over this issue.

    Sorry if I misunderstood your comments Atmar, or came across as sounding patronising. I didn't mean to :)

  28. pj said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    @Peter Harvey

    How do I use a genitive with an apostrophe to describe the house of my parents-in-law?

    What's the problem with 'my parents-in-law's house'? That's fine for me.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:24 am

    Yeah "my parents-in-law's house" is how I'd say it, I wouldn't write it in a formal context though.

  30. Sid Smith said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    I suppose if you follow the ideal of concision far enough you're bound to undermine ideals such as accuracy, clarity, comprehensiveness, etc. Concision threatens content. (Journalese flirts with this threat; legalese abhors it,) This must be true, surely, of all languages.

  31. Michael said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    A related (perhaps nearly identical?) problem is "their lives" vs. "their life"; it gets worse in "their wives"…

  32. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:58 am

    I am just trying to concoct an appropriate sentence using wive's' without getting into non-PC hot water.

  33. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    Oops. Mucked up the italics. Maybe it can be corrected and this comment deleted, as if nothing happened.

  34. Barney said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 7:09 am

    Walchak's plan would cause a "cause a net-gain in word economy.", but he misses the point that that's not always a good thing. Lower word economy makes it easier to detect mistakes.

    If the increase in word economy was carried to its conclusion, so that the language was designed to make every sentence as short as possible, then any mistake would create a clear and meaningful sentence that says the wrong thing, and it might be impossible to detect it as a mistake.

    I don't know of any, but there are probably examples where language changes have been widely taken up that reduce the word economy and make error detection easier. Of course sometimes an increase in word economy is a good thing, but I think English has probably settled near the optimum level.

  35. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    I was trying to be facetious but I also think I stumbled an an oddity regarding David Walchak's brilliant innovation (and here I'm not being sarcastic, I'm genuinely impressed by it). Namely, what do we do about English words that have unusual plurals like wife/wives. David's suggestion would seem to imply wife's' e.g. "The husbands kissed their wife's' cheek" meaning "The husbands kissed their respective wives on the cheek". But unfortunately, the spoken version would be ambiguous, sounding like "The husbands kissed their wife's cheek" which would work for a polyandrous society. My brain hurts too much now to think about mouse/mice etc.

  36. George said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    Would this be an example of 'whorfography,' an idea that cannot be expressed in English writing?

  37. Aaron Davies said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum : this seems like the sort of thing lojban would be particularly good at. i don't remember much of what little i ever knew of lojban grammar, but a priori, i'd expect it to be easy to mark multi-party possession as any of the four possible mappings (bijective, injective, surjective, general, iirc).

  38. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Cheers Aaron (and marie-lucie above). Will have a look at those.

  39. Abi said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    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.

    As someone who grew up using (and writing, though not in formal contexts) constructions such as lord's', wife's', etc, I am astonished to learn that it is DOA. David is indeed a clever lad, but he is not the first person to come up with the double apostrophe.

  40. Gadi said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    Peasants of the middle ages were under the legal jurisdiction of their lord.

    The best way to avoid ambiguous writing is to change a phrase rather than find a way to make the original phrase less obtuse through added gimmickry.

  41. John Cowan said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    Lewis Carroll was big on a different double apostrophe, and wrote (when his publishers let him) wo'n't, sha'n't, and more subtly ca'n't, but haven't and didn't. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, wrote (when his publishers let him) wont, shant, cant, havnt, didnt.

  42. Peter Harvey said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Parents-in-law's is what I settled for as my style but the apostrophe's in the wrong place and it's singular not plural. But parents-in-laws' just doesn't look right.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    I fail to see what is objectionable about "my parents-in-law's house". The 's applies to the compound word, in which the plural suffix is attached to the head noun, thus eliminating the potential ambiguity and the spelling conundrum when the two homophonous suffixes are attached to the same element.

  44. MJ said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    A copyediting list I'm on was presented with this example from an editor a few months ago: "We'll never forget, years ago, the confused and distressed look on one of our friend's faces."

  45. Rolig said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    @ MJ – if you have the liberty to change the sentence, I would rewrite it: "…the confused and distressed look on the face of one of our friends." If you can't rewrite it (because it is a direct quote), then my suggestion would be: "…the confused and distressed look on one of our friends' faces." But "one of our friend's" is definitely wrong because you are singularizing "friends." This case is very much like the one discussed above, "my parents-in-law's house": the problem is how to make a possessive when the pertinent word or word-part is not final (ONE of our friends, PARENTS-in-law). The principle is to apply the appropriate rule for whatever the final part of the compound word or phrase is: -'s if it is singular or a plural that does not end in -s (-law), and just -' if it is a plural ending in -s (friends). Notice that the ending -'s is not exclusively singular (the children's friends), nor is the ending -' exclusively plural (Pythagoras' theorum).

  46. MJ said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    @Rolig The editor who was posing the question to the copyediting list couldn't rewrite; he was making minor corrections to a reprint edition of a book (so everyone on the list suggested _friends'_). I mentioned the sentence here as another real-life example similar to the classic examples in the linguistics literature, e.g., "the queens of England's reigns are unusually long."

    I couldn't find any grammarian who had addressed this, but another copyediting collegue pointed me to a passage in Follett:

    An interesting variant of the one-head-to-one-person axiom turns up in a piece of popular fiction: "Charley suggested that one of the [pack] animals' load be stowed in a wagon." Much thought–the author's or his editor's–went into the choice of a version that can hardly strike anyone as natural and will probably strike many as ungrammatical. The problem is really two problems: _animals'_ versus _animal's_, and _load_ versus _loads_.Both problems can be skirted without drawing attention to them: "one animal's load" would be both accurate and easy, and "the load of one animal" would be at least accurate.

  47. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    You understood me perfectly. You misunderstood only an unimportant detail: my name :).
    I always got the feeling too that the English language counts backwards like, for example: 3, 2, and 1.
    It looks to me that the English people were very "advanced" on the mathematic.
    I agree that there are many languages that do that too, but I do not see it as an argument.
    What I liked to explain: if some centuries ago some unknown linguists have made some understandable mistakes, the modern linguists must not let pass them so easily and not to invent new writing's mistakes.
    In the education of the new generation, the most important thing is the deep knowledge of the language, and, of course, the knowledge of its dark sides.
    Can anybody pronounce the grammar invention–the paired apostrophe “s”?
    Whenever we invent something, whatever it is: a language tool or a mechanical tool, we strive to fulfill a goal. A language invention should have a goal or purpose: to explain better.
    The paired apostrophe is wonderful for the particular group of readers. What is it going to do for the group of listeners? Which group is more important from the linguistic point of view? [1, 2, 3..]
    If we will go in this way, will come a day that the people will become voiceless, mute, speechless, or dumb. And, as you know, the "dumb' has more than one signification in English.

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