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Mark's transatlantic reaction to the linguistic story of the week in the UK — the news that a major bookstore chain has changed its name from Waterstone’s to Waterstones (shock horror scandal probe!) — was simply to mock a ridiculously over-written barbarians-at-the-gates piece from the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, over here in the UK, I was listening to one of the stupidest discussions of language I've ever heard on the radio (and I've heard some beauties), one that stands a very good chance of placing as dumbest of 2012, early in the year though it is.

BBC Radio 4's "World At One" arranged a discussion (archived here, listen after minute 39:26) between a liberal who claimed this was fine (children's author Michael Rosen, whose position is written up here) and a conservative (radio presenter John Humphrys) who admitted it was not the end of civilization but nonetheless took it as a sign of The Way Things Are Going and protested that we must not "lose the apostrophe", the reason being that "we need it".

Rosen argued that the apostrophe, at least for marking the genitive, "is on the way out", and it will be no bad thing when it's gone. As evidence he read several apostrophe-lacking genitives in place names off a map (St Stephens Church, St Johns Church, Priors Field, Preachers Hill). Humphrys, a highly experienced news presenter famous for both his attacking interviews of politicians and his curmudgeonly books on proper usage, prattled smoothly and eloquently about how the apostrophe was crucial because the vital thing in language is communication, which requires that there be no ambiguity. Both of them were entirely mistaken in almost all of their arguments. Sigh. More work for Language Log.

Let's take Rosen first. There are plenty of location names that etymologically contain a genitive but are spelled today without an apostrophe. My walk to work, for example, goes through what my street guide to Edinburgh lists as Lady Stairs Close, spelled Lady Stair's Close in some sources. Such spellings mean absolutely nothing as regards the survival of the apostrophe.

I have referred to the apostrophe as the forgotten letter in English. It is an anomalous letter, because it absolutely never corresponds to a sound (I think, though see this post), but it is an obligatory part of the spelling of indefinitely many words (most obviously, all regular genitives and all negated and cliticized auxiliaries). The existence of a few older location names that lack the apostrophe means nothing about its prospects; it's as unimportant as the existence of a peculiar set of nouns that do not take the apostrophe in their genitives (the personal pronouns her, his, its, my, our, their, and your). What drives the error-hunters wild is that it not only gets missed where it was putatively needed, it also gets inserted where it is not allowed (recall the awful incident of the mistakenly apostrophed lunch bus that the BBC parked most insensitively under the windows of the Linguistics and English Language offices at my university). But there are no signs of it dying out. Rosen's suggestion that we are on any such path is totally off base.

And as for Humphrys and his plausible burbling about communicative purpose and avoidance of being of the essence, unfortunately it is as plain as a pikestaff that languages do not avoid or strive against ambiguity. They are loaded with ambiguity; they seem to love it.

Let me make a numerical point to begin with. The number of strings with length not more than 10 over the roman letters a to z plus the apostrophe is 2710 = 205,891,132,094,649 — about 200 trillion. The total number of words in the workaday word list traditionally found on Unix systems (usually in /usr/share/dict/words) is about 25,000, and even the much larger (and less useful) augmented list found on newer systems is under 250,000. Six or seven orders of magnitude difference. What I'm saying is that English could easily have a distinct letter sequence for every different meaning, using letter sequences much shorter than the present ones. It doesn't because the language in general shows no signs of being the slightest bit interested in that. English uses the same two-word phrase for denigrating, ceasing to hold, making notes, and euthanasia. It wantonly employs a single three-letter word for meanings relating to understanding, judging, experiencing, finding out, dating, visiting, ensuring, escorting, and saying farewell. Nobody who thinks about English for a few seconds could possibly believe it shuns ambiguity. It doesn't give a monkey's fart about avoiding ambiguity.

And certainly ambiguity isn't the reason we should keep spelling with an apostrophe the same words that have an apostrophe now. Why do we have the spellings we have? It's due to a very complex mix of (1) the mnemonic advantage of having letter sequences correspond (at least partially) to sound sequences; (2) the partially conflicting mnemonic advantage of having letter sequences reflect relatedness between lexemes (it's nice to see the same letter sequence in phótograph, photógrapher, and photográphic, or in compáre, compárative, and incómparable, despite the strikingly different pronunciations); and (3) a mish-mash of ancient traditions we don't want to give up. I'll accept it as a statement of personal affection if anyone wants to say they love English the way it is, but people who say that the ridiculous orthographic mess we have inherited is a finely tuned system for clear communication and avoidance of ambiguity are delusional.

The whole basis of the argument Humphrys gave for keeping the apostrophe is mistaken. Since dogs, dog's, and dogs' are all pronounced exactly the same, the fact that we can understand each other when we talk about dogs is as good a proof as one could expect for the proposition that there is no real danger of irresolvable confusion here. Humphrys cited the distinctions between its and it's and between were and we're to illustrate the wondrously helpful nature of the apostrophe, failing to notice that (a) the form its is a genitive that lacks the apostrophe all regular genitives have, and (b) it is extremely hard to make up any sentence in which the only difference is its vs. it's or were and we're so that ambiguity in context could actually arise. There is, in other words, virtually zero chance of any ambiguity needing to be prevented by separating the spellings of these pairs of words.

And now we return to Waterstones. What they have changed is merely a trade name — a conventional sequence of glyphs, like IBM or eBay or Yahoo! or LaTeX or Harrods (Harrods was founded by Charles Henry Harrod, incidentally. Where was the outcry over its lack of an apostrophe? Nobody ever noticed. That's how stupid this dispute is.)

One small fact about a name like Waterstone’s is that it can never be used as an argument to a function in a language like the various Unix shell languages. Look at the results of telling the Terminal application on a Mac to type out the new name of Waterstones: (what I typed is in blue; the result from the computer is in red):

echo I bought it at Waterstones yesterday.
I bought it at Waterstones yesterday.
And now look at the behavior with the old name: echo I bought it at Waterstone's yesterday.
Unmatched '.

Unix command languages take the apostrophe character (ASCII character octal 047) to be a quotation mark which syntactically has to be matched by a second occurrence elsewhere in the same string. To override this behavior you, the user, have to recognize the problem and work around it by using a protective backslash before the offending symbol:

echo I bought it at Waterstone\'s yesterday.
I bought it at Waterstone's yesterday.

Or alternatively you can enclose the entire string (or just the octal 047) between occurrences of the double-quotation mark ":

echo "I bought it at Waterstone's yesterday."
I bought it at Waterstone's yesterday.

For very similar reasons, it's a bit of a problem to have a file name with an apostrophe in it — not impossible, just slightly trickier than the naive user would expect. The work-arounds are easy, but slightly fiddly and counterintuitive to those many unfortunate souls who are not Unix hackers. Waterstones is a string over the 52 purely alphabetical characters (A-Z and a-z); Waterstone's is not. Waterstones wanted their name to be a string of purely alphabetical characters like Harrods.

But what happens? The chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, John Richards, condemned the change of name. He called it "just plain wrong". He told the Telegraph (a reliably conservative newspaper with many apostrophe-loving readers) that the new name is "grammatically incorrect" (see the BBC News article here; it is classified under "Entertainment and Arts", but "Silliness" would be a better category name for this sort of story).

It is sad — in fact very irritating — to hear people trying to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about "incorrectness" and "ambiguity" that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all. And that point is quite independent of Mark's historical review of the earlier times when contemporary apostrophic practice had not yet developed.

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