Don't get your kilt in a bundle

« previous post | next post »

I can't say I share Mark and Geoff's agitation about the Jeremiad about the disappearance of the apostrophe in the Daily Mail. True, the tone of these things is enormously tiresome, with the outrage camped up just enough so the writer can deter the charge of taking himself too seriously. (It's like karaoke singers who clown and mug as they sing songs by the Carpenters that they really cherish.) But these complaints actually leave one with a very reassuring sense of complacency about the state of English. If the greatest linguistic threats we're facing are things like the confusion of prone and supine and a deteriorating grasp on the lie/lay distinction, then we'll probably muddle through. It's like hearing someone warn of grave domestic security threats and then learning that he's mostly concerned about Canadian sturgeon-poaching on the US side of Lake Huron.

And now it has come down to the use of the apostrophe, a rule so inconsequential that you can actually send students to Strunk and White for counsel about it. When you think about it, it belies the charges of elitism that linguists are always leveling at these people. Think of the way Lynne Truss has ridden this shtick to the top of the bestseller lists, drawing millions of readers into a sense of confraternity with everybody else who got the possessive rule down cold in middle school. What could be more democratic than that? Language may be infinitely deep and mysterious, but when it comes to mastery of the apostrophe, you and I walk hand-in-hand with Henry James.

Still, one small thing. Johns concludes by saying: "If Paris, according to Henry IV, was well worth a mass, then the English language is most definitely worth an apostrophe." If memory serves, though, Henry was saying that the mass was expendible change was good for you.


  1. Mark Etherton said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    In this case, memory doesn't serve: Henri IV was saying that it was worth becoming a Catholic to become King of France, ie not that he was giving up a mass, but that he was accepting the mass as a necessary (and small) cost.

    GN: Right you are. I must have been thinking of the Edict of Nantucket.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Henri was in fact saying that his erstwhile opposition to the mass was expendible. (Implicit in that might have been the assumption that principled adherence to the mass would be equally expendible if the shoe were on the other foot, but in the particular circumstances it wasn't.)

  3. Janice Byer said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    Likewise reassuring is the tenor of reader comments that prescriptivist outrage has invariably provoked, with the majority expressing a keen sense of their native language as an inheritance without codicils to be invested to the benefit of the living not the dead.

  4. SeaDrive said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    It's all the fault of Lands' End.

  5. Kathryn said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Oh, Janice, what a truly lovely way to say it!

  6. Kathryn said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    Although I think you might have meant "conditions" or "limitations" rather than "codicils"–but that is a pettifogging nitpick; I think the general shape of your sentence nails it.

  7. Fiona Hanington said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    Fantastic piece by Michael Rosen on this very thing…

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    M Rosen's piece makes me wonder about the time(s) when people were changing pronunciation from "do not" to "do-nt" to "dont". or "will not" to "wont" and "am not" to "aint". While it is easy enough to say and understand "wont" as "will not" today, for example, did these shifts cause any alarm among the guardians of speech at the time?

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    *Were* there guardians of speech before—I dunno, pick a guardian—Dryden, Johnson, Lowth, Fowler? Well after ain't, at any rate.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    …or maybe not. Apparently it first appeared in print in 1830. That seems awfully late.

  11. Rubrick said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

    Sturgeon poaching is where it all begins.

  12. Tom Ace said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    Waterstones has a sense of humor about all this. (Or, if you prefer, Waterstones have a sense of humour about all this.) They have a fun pic and comments at the URL my name links to, above.

  13. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    I have to confess I never noticed that Waterstone's had an apostrophe.

    Oh well, now at least I will never go there looking for an oilstone.

  14. Mark Etherton said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    'Edict of Nantucket': is that the one about the old man who kept all his cash in a bucket?

  15. naddy said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    While it is easy enough to say and understand "wont" as "will not" today, for example, did these shifts cause any alarm among the guardians of speech at the time?

    Oh, certainly. The entry on ain't in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (full view available on Google Books) mentions historical objections to other such contractions (p. 61). This quote from 1846 is particularly striking:

    Won't for will not, and ain't for is not or are not are absolutely vulgar; […]

    Today, ain't still suffers as much disapproval as back then, but the objection to won't seems bizarrely quaint.

  16. Kylopod said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    >but the objection to won't seems bizarrely quaint.

    I think there's still some residual resistance to it and other common contractions in that they are avoided in formal writing and speech, and their use is a sign of casual or colloquial English.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    I wondered if "kilt in a bundle" was an original coinage of Prof. Nunberg's but apparently it's been Out There for a while. Does it actually have a decent claim to be the standard or leading male-attire analogue to "knickers in a twist" (AmEng "panties in a bunch")? Are there other competitors? The snowclone database doesn't seem to be on this particular case.

  18. Rebecca said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    Quoting Kylopod:

    How formal do you mean? It doesn't strike me that there's resistance in ordinary, edited writing. For example, a quick look at an Op Ed piece in today's New York Times showed the writer using a contraction almost every time it was possible to do so, and in particular, consistently using "not" contractions.

  19. Mark F. said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    Rebecca –

    I used to think that regular use of contractions in Time was a sign that they were OK in formal writing, but then I realized that Time isn't all that formal. Even within a single publication, there can be a substantial range of formality. Op-eds, columns, and human interest stories in the NYT tend to be fairly informal, while hard news stories tend to be more formal. And counting contractions is, I think (or at least suspect), a pretty good way to quantify the difference.

  20. Bloix said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

    Why does Prof. Pullum think it odd that the apostrophe has no sound? The whole point of it is that it shows the omission of letters which, if present, would be sounded (star-cross'd lovers, "'Tis known," "draw your neck out o' the collar" – all from Romeo and Juliet in modern orthography).

  21. Kylopod said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 11:31 pm

    There's no question there's been a decline in formality in professional writing over the last century, and an increasing toleration of more conversational language. Look at any New York Times opinion article from the early part of the 20th century, and you probably won't find too many contractions. Today, writers not only use contractions but even occasionally slang and nonstandard forms. Here's one example I just dug up from a quick search of Google News, a Maureen Dowd piece that not only uses the word "ain't," but "eviler":

    In sum, the NYT opinion section is no longer a good place for determining what constitutes formal English. You probably have to go to college term papers for examples of English where contractions are still taboo. It's a receding tendency, but it still exists.

  22. Geoff Nunberg said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 1:28 am

    To my mind, the threshold of formal is the point at which rather takes over for pretty.

  23. Mark F. said,

    January 18, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    I looked for contractions Science and only found any in book reviews. I have seen them before in scientific journal papers, but they're quite rare.

RSS feed for comments on this post