Punctuation Politics – The Curious Case of the Apostrophe

Apostrophe-manSome of the context is unfamiliar to me as a non-UK reader, but Michael Rosen makes an interesting argument that there is a politics of punctuation:

My position is that the apostrophe is on the way out. It’s an inconsistent item anyway; it was invented by printers – not grammarians or linguists – and like a lot of other ‘rules’ of punctuation is modified by use. No bad thing.

Like many other norms in everyday life, punctuation emerges through patterns of common usage. Declarations of these rules like the AP Guide to Punctuation and Strunk & White codify common patterns, but are not the source for them. Rosen uses the inconsistency of the rules to show how they have shifted and evolved over time:

We say as a general ‘rule’ that we use an apostrophe for ‘elision’ (when we leave stuff out) and for possessives (when we want to indicate that someone or something owns someone or something). So when we write ‘haven’t’ – that’s supposed to show we’ve ‘left out’ the ‘o’ of not. When we write ‘Michael’s writing’ that’s supposed to show that the writing is possessed by Michael. He owns it. So far so good.

But is all possession marked with an apostrophe? Oh no. So if we use what have been called the ‘possessive pronouns’, its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs – no apostrophe! Why not? er…well, no one really knows.Look at eighteenth century texts and you will find phrases like, let’s say, ‘the lands were her’s’. Even Mr Strict, Bishop Lowth, the inventor of crap grammar, used an apostrophe there. So, if it was a ‘rule’ then, when did it become a ‘rule’ to not use an apostrophe in, ‘yours’ or ‘ours’? Answer, it’s only a ‘rule’ if you’re the kind of person who thinks this sort of stuff is a ‘rule’ and not, what I would call a ‘convention’.

Rosen discusses apostrophes for elision–it’s, haven’t, they’re–in some detail. Two other use cases also point out historical irregularities:

By the way that complicated stuff about plural possessives ‘the boys’ caps’ – meaning two or more boys’ caps only became a ‘rule’ in the nineteenth century. Up until then, people like Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe managed to get by without worrying about it.

And in case you’re wondering if the decade was the 60’s or the 60s, the answer is, it all depends on the house style of the whoever is publishing it. Again, it’s a trade matter, not a grammatical one of rules.

And if you’re wondering why the possessive apostrophe came in in the first place? Because most nouns used to express possession with an ending ‘es’ with the ‘e’ sounded out. ‘dogges ears’ – with the ‘e’ heard. That sounded out ‘e’ started to disappear just as the first efforts to standardise orthography came in so with the ‘elision rule’ they reckoned that they ought to mark the ‘loss’ of the sounded ‘e’. So it wasn’t a rule of possession after all! It was the old elision ‘rule’. So when you hear people say that the apostrophe is for ‘possession’ as I did all through this article, I was talking nonsense. It was the ‘rule’ of elision but as with vast amounts of so-called grammar and information about language, we believe in the necessity of lying to children – or just foisting our ignorance on to them. That’s because the old idea of ‘investigating language’ rather than laying down the rules has gone out the window.

When we focus on rules as they exist in the present without regard to their historical record, they seem fixed rather than emergent. But the near future may show us how short-sighted this is. Rosen argues that conventional usage of the apostrophe is slipping away as we generate more and more text at a rapid pace in the form of emails, text messages, and the like. We are already beginning to see a sort of double standard for formal and informal written language. The difference is not yet as stark as between, say, colloquial dialects and Modern Standard Arabic (the codified version used by college-educated professionals and journalists) but it is growing. There you have it–political change at your fingertips.

2 thoughts on “Punctuation Politics – The Curious Case of the Apostrophe

  1. Whats up it is kinda regarding off subject but I was wondering if sites use WYSIWYG editors or if you must manually value with HTML. I’m beginning a blog soon but haven’t any coding experience i really wanted to acquire advice coming from someone together with experience. Any help can be enormously liked!

Comments are closed.