Tag Archives: English

The future of the apostrophe?

Yesterday this tweet appeared from @hazelblackberry on Twitter.

””””””’ pic.twitter.com/pLtEn1gq

It led to this photo:

Wall notice reading "Key's for Shearer's Quarter's Room's Are located on the Utilities' wall inside Shearer's Quarter's Compound."

Used with permission..

What’s so wonderful about this is that every single apostrophe is wrong even in the words which should have one. That takes some doing. It’s slightly disappointing that there are two S’s and an s which don’t have apostrophes, but every s at the end of a word has one. [1]

Given this level of confusion, part of me is wondering whether one day something like this will happen:

Diagram: s without an apostrophe disappears from the alphabet and is replaced by two forms in which the apostrophe is merged with the letter. These then merge together and produce a new letter of the alphabet.

Since the letter s is always used with an apostrophe, the apostrophe becomes part of the letter. First there are two versions, depending on the placement of the apostrophe, but by this stage nobody can remember which is right anyway and it’s such a pain trying to choose between the two different s’s that the two forms merge.

Actually I suspect this won’t happen, since so much English is now typed rather than handwritten. More likely the apostrophe will go out of use unless the very straightforward rules for its use become widely known again. It’s an interesting thought, though. And drawing the illustration gave me an excuse to experiment a bit more with the graphics tablet that arrived the other day. 😉

Footnote

[1S’s as the plural of S is correct: letters of the alphabet are the sole exception to the rule that apostrophes never make plurals. Consider the other ways of doing it and you can see why. With no punctuation, the plurals of a, i and u would be as, is and us, which are virtually impossible not to read as the standard two-letter words. Try giving the a, i and u italics: as, is, us—almost as bad. Or putting them in single or double quotes: “a”s, “i”s, “u”s, ‘a’s, ‘i’s, ‘u’s. It’s hideously messy and looks rather strange. The simplest solution is a’s, i’s and u’s. If you regard the letters as being short for their spoken names, the apostrophe becomes logical for some letters: t’s is short for tees and z’s is short for zeds for example, with the apostrophe representing the omitted -ee- and -ed-.

A long-lost newspaper cutting

Talking of things from the past unexpectedly surfacing: here’s a newspaper cutting which I saved in 1985. (Good grief, that’s 25 years ago! Ahem . . . ) I mislaid it for a while, and then was delighted to find it again a few months ago.

It dates from my time living in Bangor, North Wales, and is a letter to the local free newspaper. There was an election coming up. Bilingual leaflets were produced by the parties, in English and Welsh. Well sort of. Here is one resident’s reaction to what came through the letterbox:

Newspaper cutting in deliberately misspelt English, complaining about poor Welsh translations

From the free Bangor newspaper, c. 1984

By the way, some of the spellings in the above make more sense if you’re familiar with the basics of Welsh pronunciation and with the Gwynedd local accent: for example, ffrynt in the first sentence is an almost perfect representation in Welsh spelling of how the English word front would be pronounced locally.

Now the question in my mind is: how bad are the translations in today’s election campaigns? Have they improved at all? My hope is that they have, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that they haven’t.

Anyone know?

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .