October and the Apostrophe

The exclamation is the most derided punctuation mark. The apostrophe is the most mistreated. Robert Burchfield, when editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, thought that apostrophes were appearing so haphazardly that it might be best if they were abandoned altogether.

The Apostrophe Protection Society was one response. It has ‘the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language’. The society’s website has had close to two million visitors. That shows great interest and probably great support, but the need for protection signals a problem: contradictions guide the apostrophe’s use, and, when put to use, it is not much use.

Despite the Apostrophe Protection Society’s campaigning, Robert Burchfield, even in retirement, continues to advise abandonment. Civil authorities are beginning to do just that. The Guardian, finding ‘Apostrophe Catastrophes’ all over Britain, reports that Mid-Devon District Council plans to get rid of its apostrophes. With a very few exceptions, the Domestic Names Committee of the United States Board on Geographic Names has banned apostrophes from federal maps and signs. The Wall Street Journal reported that decision with an apostrophe-free headline: ‘Theres a Question Mark Hanging Over the Apostrophes Future.’

Meanwhile, in Britain, there is a route called both ‘The Lady’s Way’ and ‘The Ladies Way’ and a street called both ‘King’s Street’ and ‘Kings Street’. Over time ‘King’s Street’ will give way to ‘Kings Street’ because apostrophe loss is a characteristic of place names. Apostrophe loss is just as common in company names. Sainsbury’s remains Sainsbury’s, but Woolworth’s and Barclay’s have become Woolworths and Barclays. And what about Boots? Apostrophes, once encouraged in dates are now discouraged. 1960s is the recommend form not 1960’s. MA’s are to be called MAs.

‘Oh, dear,’ we might say. That would be an apostrophe of another kind: a sudden interruption of a discourse in order to address someone or something. ‘Oh, my Lord God.’ ‘Oh, bitter Fate’. The apostrophe is a turning away, and that is what the word means in Greek. There is something majestic about the apostrophe as figure of speech; there is not much majesty about the apostrophe as punctuation.

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.

Apostrophists who have been corporally punished as a means of learning punctuation rules are most likely to demand that lesser generations learn those same rules. However, in the twenty-first century, well-beaten apostrophists are dying daily, and, in truth, there are no rules. Many people find that hard to accept, but there is no authority beyond usage. History shows that in the early 1600s, when English writers and printers first began to use apostrophes, many uses now denounced were then acceptable.

The new punctuation mark was imported from Paris where it had been made fashionable by one of the world’s great punctuators, Geoffroy Tory. Appointed France’s royal printer in 1530, he was concerned that many French words had lost their Latin spelling and had become corrupted. He felt that the best thing to do was to indicate in various ways what the Latin spellings had been. He introduced apostrophes, accents, and cedillas to that end. Cedillas, he took from the Spanish. Accents, he took from the Ancient Greeks. Apostrophes, he may have invented himself.

English scholars, as worried as the French about a raw and corrupt vernacular having to do the job of a mature and pure language, did what Tory had done and began to tinker with spellings. They felt that English might at least look like Latin, and they added a ‘b’ to Middle English ‘dette’ to produce ‘debt’. It was a nod to Latin ‘debitum’. The French themselves left ‘dette’ as ‘dette’, but learned damage was underway in both countries.

Like Geoffroy Tory, English printers began using apostrophes to show what was not there. Apostrophes did not say anything about the language on the page; they were talking about another language, Latin. And English scholars went one further than the French. Tory had drawn attention to missing Latin letters. The English became just as concerned about missing English letters.

In 1400, English spelling had had a good fit with English pronunciation. French-induced spellings like Middle English ‘queen’ for Old English ‘cwen’ were unfortunate, but the vowels and most of the consonants that Chaucer wrote were vowels and consonants that Chaucer said. That phonetic fit had gone by 1500, and it had only got worse by 1600. (The Great Vowel Shift was the culprit, but that is another story.)

In 1600, numerous vowels were not only pronounced differently, many were not sounded at all. Some had ceased to be written. The most obvious losses were the ‘e’s and ‘i’s of noun endings. Fourteenth-century authors and scribes had written ‘bookes’ and ‘bookis’. Sixteenth-century writers and printers began writing ‘books’. Seventeenth-century scholars, seeing linguistic corruption, began to write ‘book’s’ and ‘book’s’. That meant something to people who knew something about old spellings, but it did not mean anything to the general public.

By the end of the seventeenth century, England had become the most literate country in Europe. Literacy was key to an increasing number of clerical jobs. It was the key to improvement for a middling kind of people, anxious to get things right. They clamoured for grammar books, dictionaries, and rules. Rules were produced. The strictest rules forced English into the framework of Latin grammar: no double negatives, no double comparatives, no split infinitives, no prepositional endings. (They are rules that people get wrong to this day.)

Along with rules for grammar came rules for punctuation. The apostrophe was rationalised. Generally, English noun possessives are produced by the addition of an ‘s’. Generally, English noun plurals are produced in the same way. Gradually, it was sorted out that the apostrophe should go before the ‘s’ in the singular and after the ‘s’ in the plural. But what if the noun plural did not end in ‘s’. Then, the apostrophe came before the ‘s’ as in ‘men’s room’. But what about ‘Mars’, a singular that ends in ‘s’?

Apostrophe problems multiplied. In 1936, Oxford’s A.B.C. of English Usage tried to sort things out, but it gave up with ‘rhinoceros’ and advised writers to write ‘of a rhinoceros’.  Today, Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules does a better job, and its clarifications are recommended by Cambridge’s Copy-Editing, an unusual tribute from one style manual to another.

While the apostrophe has disappeared as a sign that a word is a plural, it has been retained as a sign of possession. A new rule explained a new situation with the twist that while possessive nouns took an apostrophe, possessive pronouns did not. ‘Ours’, ‘yours’, ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘its’ and ‘theirs’ must remain ‘ours’, ‘yours’, ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘its’ and ‘theirs’.

However, the elliptical apostrophe continues to be found in ‘it’s’ as a contraction for ‘it is’, but the possessive pronoun cannot take a possessive apostrophe. ‘Its’ (‘of it’) must not be spelled ‘it’s’. Schoolboys who had learned that apostrophes were used to express possessives had to be beaten soundly in order to learn that they were not to be used in possessive pronouns. And yet, ‘it’s’ meaning ‘of it’ is found in eighteen-century authors. Visitors to the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress will see that Thomas Jefferson was one such. Who would dare cane him?

Meanwhile, although the elliptical apostrophe had been removed or re-explained in English noun endings, it remained in English contractions such as ‘won’t’, don’t’, ‘’tis’ ‘o’er’, ‘fo’c’s’le’. ‘Fo’c’s’le’ may be an extreme case of elliptical apostrophising, but each apostrophe accounts for one letter only. Where more than one letter is being omitted, apostrophes are called upon to perform truncations as with ‘bus and ‘phone, truncated forms of omnibus and telephone. Telephone is almost as commonplace as phone, but omnibus exists mainly in the legal names of some transportation companies.

People like to clip words – ‘bra’, ‘plane’, ‘gas’, ‘gym’ – but it is only at the earliest uses that apostrophes remind readers that what is meant is ‘brassiere’, ‘aeroplane’, ‘gasoline’, ‘gymnasium’. The new word is or was being marked as a slang from which the fastidious wished to dissociate themselves. The truncating apostrophe, like the latinising apostrophe, did not and does not convey any immediately useful information.   

The apostrophe sign had acquired two meanings once it had been explained as a possessive as well as an ellipsis. The two marks that surround the ‘s’ of ‘it’s’ show the double usage: the first is an elliptical apostrophe; the second is a quotation mark. There are other meanings of the mark.

In mathematics, there is a sign called the prime symbol. It appears in every day use to indicate feet and hours. 6’ means six feet or six hours. 6’’ means six inches or six minutes. 6’’’ means six seconds. Triple prime is less often seen though it is common enough in the records of navigators and astrologers. The shape of the prime mark is not identical to the apostrophe or the quotation mark, but, in handwriting, they are little different. On the computer, the same keystroke is often used for all three.

There is a further use of this overused mark. It can function as a letter of the alphabet. The apostrophe then becomes a consonant called a glottal stop. Consonantal stops are made when the airstream is stopped by lips, teeth, tongue, glottis. The glottal stop is heard frequently in Arabic, and we see it in words such as Qu’ran, Ka’aba, Shi’a. The guttural consonant goes unrepresented in more conventional spellings:  Coran, Kaaba, Shia.

Europeans confronted by Arabic glottal stops found nothing to represent them in the Roman alphabet. They ended up co-opting the apostrophe sign to do the job. It looks enough like the Arabic letter, and linguists had long overlooked the needs of Liverpool English. Scouse employs the glottal stop in words like ‘bottle’ and ‘Bootle’. Stopped, they become ‘boh-ull’ and ‘Boo-ull’.

The history of the apostrophe is a painful one. The mark has been put to some curious uses. But, perhaps, none is more curious than that of the greengrocers of the English markets. They continue to use the seventeenth-century scholars’ noun plural apostrophe, doggedly (and learnedly?) writing: ‘Apple’s £1 a pannier’.

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To see all the previous punctuation marks click here.

 

Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In November, the English Project will tell the story of the Quotation Mark.

For the bibliography and for the punctuation marks of the previous months, see www.englishproject.org

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