Apostropocalypse again

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"'Laziness has won': apostrophe society admits its defeat", The Guardian 12/1/2019:

John Richards, who worked in journalism for much of his career, started the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 after he retired.

Now 96, Richards is calling time on the society, which lists the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark.

Writing on the society's website, he said: "Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language.

"We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!"

That would be the "ignorance and laziness" found in John Donne and William Shakespeare ("Apostropocalypse Now", 1/15/2012), or Thomas Jefferson ("A soul candidly acknowleging it's fault", 6/9/2004), or Emily Dickinson (e.g. "The Brain, within it's Groove / Runs evenly — and true –"), or any other elite writer before the a century and a half ago, when the current (and entirely illogical) set of conventions for apostrophe usage in English was established.

See also:

Odile Piton and Hélène Pignot, "Mind your p's and q's": or the peregrinations of an apostrophe in 17th Century English;
Stan Carey, "Apostrophe apostasy", Macmillan Dictionary Blog;
"October and the Apostrophe", The English Project 2015.

From the last reference:

One reason for the battered state of the mark is that orthodox deployment demands an orthodox education, one most easily obtained at a private school. Those who have not been to a private school look as though they have if they use an orthodox apostrophe. That may be its main function, and it is well to use it well in applications for the higher jobs.

In the U.S., better-class public schools also teach the apostrophic complexities. But in any case, orthodox apostrophe usage is certainly a form of cultural capital — a property it shares with the rest of the current English orthographic system, as well as most other orthograpic systems. And those who are most anxious about preserving "the rules" are presumably also those who are most anxious about the value of their own cultural bank accounts.

[h/t Michael Glazer]

 



41 Comments »

  1. Craig said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

    What's so illogical about modern apostrophe usage? "His" and "hers" don't have apostrophes, so why should "its"?

    The development of the possessive in English is kind of interesting. While I am neither a linguist nor an English teacher by profession, my understanding is that possessives used to be written with separate words, such as "the king his book", which was later contracted to "the king's book". The use of the apostrophe to mark a contraction is common and well-understood even today; even people who put apostrophes where they don't belong (according to modern rules; and why should today's writers care what the rules were 200 years ago?) can correctly spell "don't" and "couldn't". Reducing "king his" to "king's" is essentially the same, isn't it? The only difference is that we still use "cannot", so we know that "can't" is a contraction, whereas we don't say "the king his" anymore, leaving "the king's" as a contraction with no equivalent non-contraction in common usage.

    One might logically conclude that the feminine possessive should be 'r ("the queen her book" becoming "the queen'r book"), but then again this might be pushing consistency to the point of foolishness.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:10 pm

    "those who are most anxious about preserving 'the rules' are presumably also those who are most anxious about the value of their own cultural bank accounts".

    I respectfully disagree. Those who are anxious about preserving "the rules'" believe (I would suggest) that in spelling and punctuation, as in life in general, there are things that are correct, things that are incorrect, and things that can be either correct or incorrect depending on context. "It's" meaning "it is" is correct and "its" meaning it-genetive is also correct, whereas "it's" meaning it-genetive is incorrect and "its" meaning "it is" is also incorrect, in all contexts.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

    From the Wikipedia page on "English possessive":

    In the Early Modern English of 1580 to 1620 it was sometimes spelled as "his" as a folk etymology, e.g. "St. James his park"; see his genitive.

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:15 pm

    It is not true that the modern genitive comes from the 'the king his book' type of construction, though there's no doubt that people in the 16-17c. often spelled the normal genitive using 'his' for whatever reason. That 'king his book' type of genitive – called the 'his genitive' – has parallels in many other languages, even though it has died out in English.

    Despite that distraction, I can't agree that the rules for apostrophe use in English are illogical or complex. If any aspect of a language really is, one will expect to find that foreigners make more mistakes than natives – and many aspects of English do show that, but not this one.

    The argument that English would remain fully intelligible without the apostrophe is exactly parallel to the claim that French would remain fully intelligible without accent marks, and I doubt that is a position sanctioned by linguists.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

    Philip Taylor:
    It's not likely that all 'lingustic conservatives' have the same motives, nor that they are necessarily conscious of their motives. Thus your claim is very weak – even though I happen to agree with the conclusion that standard apostrophe usage should be preserved.

  6. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    It won't do to point out that punctuation conventions (sometimes called "rules") are illogical, as all language conventions — whether pertaining to punctuation or to spelling or to grammar — are illogical and arbitrary.

    Such things ought to be regarded simply as markers of education; in the context of a professional writer, these amount to markers of qualification. The characterisation of the adherence to these arbitrary conventions as "cultural capital" (with very strong overtones of disapproval) ignores the legitimate function of norms of educated discourse.

    What's more, mention of the practices of Shakespeare or of any other authors from previous centuries is out of order. A reader of writing that is edited and that is presented in a curated manner is entitled to expect that this writing hew to the language norms that are currently prevailing; that reader is therefore also entitled to consider himself/herself aggrieved when it does not.

  7. mdhughes said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:54 pm

    The standard response I use for poor apostrophe usage is Bob the Angry Flower:

    http://www.angryflower.com/aposter.html

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

    Again, it is far too strong and broad to claim that all language conventions are 'arbitrary and illogical'. Certainly some are, and there is no bright line between those that are and those that are not, but language norms are not _just_ fashions.

    The claim that they are only gives ammunition to those that would tear them down. It is simply a matter of fact, for instance, that its and it's are different words with different functions. To call that merely a 'language norm currently prevailing' is not much less absurd than calling 2+2=4 a 'mathematical norm currently prevailing'.

  9. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

    @Andrew Usher

    It's your comparison that's absurd. The issue is not whether its and it's are different words; no one disputes that they are. The issue is how they ought to be written. Of course the apostrophe is just a current language norm; you can argue that it's necessary to mark the distinction between them, but past usage, and perhaps future usage, would disagree. Whereas 2 + 2 = 4 is simply a fact; how to write it is not in question. (Though there are in fact different ways to write it, and one could say that choosing to use arabic numerals and the decimal system is just a current mathematical notation norm; a computer would calculate it as 10 + 10 = 100.)

    Also, the comparison of the apostrophe to French accent marks is not completely parallel, for one simple reason: French accents do much more work than English apostrophes do, and removing them would have a far greater effect.

  10. AntC said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

    Would anybody like to rate the 'logicality'/arbitrariness of the rules for apostrophes showing possessives on plurals and (singular) words ending in 's'?

    I learnt some rules once. I've no idea if they're the same rules everybody learns (who can be bothered) or of those who edit "in a curated manner".

    I don't see a lot of "Jesus'" written out these days (nor hear the pronunciation with lengthened second syllable).

    Why is it "children's books" but "kids' books", or is it "kids's books"? And anyway how does whatever the alleged logic is flow from "the children his books"? Especially if all the children are female or wish to avoid gender identification?

  11. Christian Weisgerber said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 4:40 pm

    @Craig

    my understanding is that possessives used to be written with separate words, such as "the king his book", which was later contracted to "the king's book".

    You are mistaken. The English possessive clitic 's goes back to the strong declension's masculine/neuter genitive ending -es in Old English. Basically, "the kinges book" was contracted to "the king's book". Note that the plural -s correspondingly goes back to the strong masculine nominative/accusative -as, so etymologically speaking there is no reason why one of them should be spelled with an apostrophe but not the other.

    Now whether you consider the spelling its for the possessive determiner to be "logical" or "illogical" depends on which rule you want to regard as dominant. On the one hand, it fits in with his and her. On the other hand, the historical neuter form was his, and only in Early Modern English was it replaced by a new formation from it and, yes, the possessive clitic 's.

    @Mark Liberman

    And those who are most anxious about preserving "the rules" are presumably also those who are most anxious about the value of their own cultural bank accounts.

    Looking at the kneejerk rejection that the 1990 French and 1996 German orthographic "reforms" (really minor modernizations) triggered from Joe and Jane Average citizen, my observation is that those who are poor spellers and most in need of a simpler orthography are those protesting the loudest. Clearly they treat such change as something being taken away from them. Of course, this doesn't necessarily contradict your remark about cultural bank accounts.

  12. Gali said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

    Of course apostrophe usage isn't totally illogical inasmuch as it's consistent within its own framework, but it remains to be demonstrated what actual benefit is gained by representing one usage of the overtaxed English morpheme /z/ orthographically different from other ones, and in such a way that it "preserves" a singular/plural distinction that doesn't exist orally.

  13. Oop said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

    In every written language, there are conventions which are essentially arbitrary but largely a given for any individual. That's what orthography is. Often, a large part of it is used as cultural capital, part of the identification process of different social layers. One may, of course, express their disgust towards that use, but it is rather pointless in the end, as there's never been a time when written language did not work that way, not since Sumerian. Which doesn't mean, again, that one shouldn't ever be annoyed by claims about a certain rule's objectiveness and (false) historicality. But that's a different issue.

    That said, I'm often puzzled by native speakers wailing about the unfair toughness of English orthography. Sure, I make mistakes in English, but it is also my second language, third almost, and its/it's is not the part I don't get. (The hard parts are actually deep grammatical structures which make no sense, like gender or articles. Or typing here in a microscopic window on the phone.)

  14. TR said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 5:47 pm

    "His" and "hers" don't have apostrophes, so why should "its"?

    Its is not syntactically equivalent to hers, but to possessive determiners like Bob's: Bob's book / its book, but The book is hers / ??The book is its.

  15. Paul Turpin said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

    I came upon this on the internet..: "Possessive 'its' is a comparative newcomer, and was, I believe, the anomaly that exposed Tom Chatterton's Rowley poems as fakes. The C15
    possessive usage was simply 'it'."

  16. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 7:29 pm

    I admit I despise Gus', Bess' and the like as possessive forms given the clash with spoken language… but my read of the mass media trend, at least, is that even this is more or less a done deal.

  17. Peter S. Shenkin said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 8:14 pm

    We would now be well-advised to turn our attention to overuse of the hyphen.

  18. The Other Mark P said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 10:12 pm

    Also, the comparison of the apostrophe to French accent marks is not completely parallel, for one simple reason: French accents do much more work than English apostrophes do, and removing them would have a far greater effect.

    It depends which accent marks.

    The circumflex does nothing at all. Far less even than apostrophes in English.

    The cedilla isn't really that big a deal. Nor is the tréma (diaeresis mark). No word would be misunderstood without them if they were dropped for any length of time.

    Even grave and acute aren't that big a deal. They indicate sound, sure, but they don't distinguish meaning very much because there are few words confused if they are omitted. So they are less important than apostrophes, that do indicate meaning even though they don't indicate sound.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 12:25 am

    The English possessive clitic 's goes back to the strong declension's masculine/neuter genitive ending -es in Old English. Basically, "the kinges book" was contracted to "the king's book". Note that the plural -s correspondingly goes back to the strong masculine nominative/accusative -as, so etymologically speaking there is no reason why one of them should be spelled with an apostrophe but not the other.

    As you note, the 's clitic is a clitic, a word in its own right rather than a morphological inflection as OE -es was. The plural marker -s is still just an inflection.

    I guess it's a matter of interpretation whether this is a reason "etymologically speaking".

  20. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 12:39 am

    Regarding its v. it's, what trips people surely isn't the illogic or otherwise of the apostrophe rules, but the homophony.

    Now one might reasonably argue that differently-spelled homophones are bad, but that's nothing in particular to do with apostrophes.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 1:42 am

    what trips people surely isn't the illogic or otherwise of the apostrophe rules, but the homophony

    I don't think this can be true. It would imply that people have no trouble spelling words that don't have homophones, and that is certainly not the case.

    For an example involving an apostrophe (though not homophony), I recently saw the spelling "do'nt".

    I submit that the simpler explanation is that what trips people up is that the apostrophe is a symbol with no associated sound, so knowing the pronunciation of a word tells you nothing about where, if anywhere, an apostrophe might occur.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 1:53 am

    @Michael Watts:

    People can and do obviously misspell anything; but "do'nt" doesn't seem to be common (and I would suspect largely reflects failures of digital coordination rather than lack of knowledge of the conventional spelling). And what I overwhelmingly see is its used for it's or vice versa – it's rare to see i'ts or its' used for either.

    So I still think that people largely know the spellings, but similarly to there/their confusion, stumble on which spelling goes with which meaning.

  23. tedpamulang said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 4:20 am

    I think one major reason for the increase in switching of its and it's is the Microsoft Word spell checker, which regularly encourages people to change to the other spelling. Users don't realize that the spellcheck is asking "are you sure" rather than saying "no, you're wrong, change it."

  24. Peter Erwin said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 4:50 am

    Regarding its v. it's, what trips people surely isn't the illogic or otherwise of the apostrophe rules, but the homophony.

    People don't generally have problems with all the other homophonous pairs or triplets ("many cars" vs "the car's brakes" vs "the car's in the garage"). The problem is simply that the general, nearly universal rule — "use the apostrophe to indicate possession" — is violated in the case of "it". ("hers" is the only other apparent exception that comes immediately to mind, since it can be naively analyzed as "her" + "s")

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 5:39 am

    Peter S. Shenkin said "We would now be well-advised to turn our attention to overuse of the hyphen". Far worse, IMHO, is the under-user thereof. "Coworker" comes immediately to mind, as do "coopt" and others where the 'obvious' mental pronunciation is sadly not that intended by the author.

  26. poftim said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 8:49 am

    Peter E: "People don't generally have problems with all the other homophonous pairs or triplets".
    I don't know. Native speakers confuse "their", "there" and "they're" all the time, and I commonly see things like "free reign" or "pouring over his notes" or "I maybe available later". In the case of "its" vs "it's", I think it's both the homophony and the violation of the "apostrophe for possessive" rule that cause errors.

    I used to give exercises (designed for native speakers) on your/you're, its/it's and their/there/they're to my students here in Romania, but I no longer do so because they were plain sailing for even my ten-year-old students. They clearly saw these as pairs or triplets of totally different animals, and were often surprised to learn that they had identical pronunciations. However, they often struggle with sets of words like fi/fii/fiii in their own language. Yes, triple 'i' is a thing in Romanian.

  27. Rose Eneri said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 10:11 am

    We are often advised to write for our readers. This principle applies to apostrophe use in its/it's. When it is wrong, I have to go back and re-read the sentence. This is not efficient and destroys the flow. How about we just always write "it is" as I just did?

    @Peter Erwin -"hers" is the only other apparent exception that comes immediately to mind". Don't forget "theirs".

    @Philip Taylor- Don't forget "cooperate", which used to be hyphenated. I once had a friend for whom English was a second language. She was very glad to have me explain its pronunciation.

  28. Stefan Travis said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    The site gives the examples of "Jones's Bakery" and "Joneses' Bakery", but "Jesus's deciples", but doesn't even attempt to explain when we're supposed to include the final S, or not.

    Nor does it mention the thorny question of how to pronounce "Joneses'", or explain why the possessive "Its" doesn't have an apostrophe.

    I think they're deliberately not going into their own "!ogical and simple" rules, to presevere the illusion they're logical or simple.

  29. Ray said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 9:41 pm

    all this fussin' and feudin' over its and it's would be solved if we just agreed to use they and their, you know?

    "Tom enjoyed they ice cream cone because of their cooling effects."

    "Mary enjoyed their ice cream cone because they is such a hot summer day."

    "Bob's cat licked their paw — they is only natural for a cat."

    "That glove belongs to Nora. their monogrammed stitching proves they is most definitely theirs."

    "Orthodoxy has their merits, except when they is confuzzled by countervailing orthodoxies."

  30. Rodger C said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    I often feel that people who write "cooperate" should be reeducated.

  31. Geoff M said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 9:23 am

    I can't concede The Other Mark P's claim that the circumflex "does nothing at all." Certainly in Canadian French at least it modifies the pronunciation of a and e (though I'll grant, not consistently).

  32. stephen said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

    A TV commercial for Hamm's beer had two cartoon characters, one asks the other, "How do you spell Hamm's?"

    "H-A-M-M-apostrophe-S."

    "How do you spell 'apostrophe'?"

    I had an amusing apostrophe catastrophe once. I wasn't trying to be funny, but I was writing down the title of a book for somebody…

    Ancien't Israel's Faith and History…

    Oops. I corrected the error right away.

  33. Josh R said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 6:57 pm

    poftim said, "Native speakers confuse "their", "there" and "they're" all the time,"

    I would say rather that "their" is an intrusive spelling. You see "their" slide in for "there" and "they're", but I for one have never seen something like "They took there ball and went home" or "They're was a man at the station." And personally, I don't think it's a matter of confusion, but of fingers mindless punching out "their" as the mind races ahead to the rest of the sentence. I found that in my own chat logs.

    "It's" for "its" is, I think, more straightforward confusion, due to people not cognizant or not caring about the distinction (although mindless finger punching does occur, though). On a base level, people think "it + possessive", and it comes out naturally as "it's". Again, I don't see "its" for "it's" confusion, other than in texts that do away with apostrophes altogether.

  34. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 3, 2019 @ 11:27 pm

    My preference is to have an apostrophe in the abbreviation of "is", but none in the genitive, as in "Loves Labour's Lost". That's the early modern and the correct usage.

  35. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 4, 2019 @ 12:58 am

    I've certainly been guilty of spellings like "they took there ball" – but I'm not a native speaker, so arguably don't count.

    It is, though, one of the few types of errors that have become more frequent as my English has improved.

  36. Rodger C said,

    December 4, 2019 @ 7:45 am

    I've certainly seen "they took there ball" from native speakers.

  37. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 4, 2019 @ 10:21 pm

    "Paris' hidden vineyards" is a headline on BBC for the moment
    http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20191204-paris-hidden-vineyards

  38. Philip Anderson said,

    December 5, 2019 @ 8:13 am

    Rodger C said,
    I often feel that people who write "cooperate" should be reeducated.

    The difference I believe is that 'cooperate' was borrowed from a Latin compound, whereas 're-educate' was created in English.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 5, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

    Showing up late to mention three common errors in apostrophes used in representing non-standard words: ya'll for y'all, lil' for li'l (true, the e is also deleted, but surely the missing tt is more salient), and ole' for ol' or ole. Common in the U.S., anyway.

  40. Michael Watts said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 4:44 am

    I for one have never seen something like "They took there ball and went home"

    Funny choice. You can find many, many examples of this exact phrase just by searching Google for it.

  41. Dan Curtin said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 9:28 pm

    fo'c'sle or fo'c's'le?? Arrrrgh.

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