Search This Blog

Saturday, 13 April 2013


Why do native English speakers have so much difficulty with apostrophes when writing in English? They clearly do, and you can write an easy newspaper column bewailing the fact (Michael Skapinker did so recently in the Financial Times but it has been done before and will no doubt be done again).

We are told  that Civilisation As We Know It Is in Decline, The Barbarians Are At The Gate, and so on through the usual suspect clich├ęs. But it is worth considering other possibilities.

One possibility is this. The rules which govern the use of apostrophes in written English are - for some unknown reason -  unadapted to being learnt. The List of Rules is quite short and believers in the List reckon that, really, the List is both easy to learn and apply. Maybe this is untrue.

Let me begin with the following story, though I forget all the details. There is a party trick (and psychological experiment) which consists in giving someone a simple list of simple numbers to add up, either with pen and paper or in their head. For certain combinations of numbers, the victim ( the experimental subject) will almost always add up wrong and arrive at a number which the joker (the experimenter) can predict in advance. The trick is curious because the numbers are not difficult numbers and the mistake made is always the same. It just seems that the particular combination of numbers touches a fault or triggers a glitch in the way we normally do addition.

There are other tricks which reveal things like our difficulty in repeating things backwards or repeating them normally but at the same time inserting arbitrary words or numbers into the strings with which we have started.

All these quirky facts point towards the idea (the theory) that some things come more naturally to us than others and that some things are more learnable than others. Tonal music comes easily to humans; atonal music doesn't. See if you can hum it while I play it!

Sometimes what linguists call prescriptive grammar is meant to be difficult. The idea really is to trip people up or to trip up people. In this way, you can create or reinforce a distinction between insiders (who have studied this particular glass bead game intensively) and outsiders (who have not). Both spoken and written languages are targets for prescriptivists seeking to create social distinctions.

I always remember being told by a privately-educated woman that at school they were taught the sentence I've got a lot of nice things. This was a mnemonic for all the expressions which well-spoken girls were supposed to avoid:

I've should always be I have
I've got should always be I have
a lot should be many
nice should never be nice but instead delightful, pleasant, fine, fun but probably not cute 
things could be possessions but really should be more specific and not generic (which is what things is)

And so a girl who opened a conversation with I have many delightful possessions at home would immediately make clear where she was coming from (the Home Counties probably).

All  this bears on apostrophe rules. My guess is that they are more or less unlearnable because:

(1) they include rules relating to demonstrating possession (John's book) alongside rules which relate to abbreviation or elision in speech (John's booking the tickets). It is maybe unfortunate that the same written tic ( ' ) is used for these two rather different purposes, making it more difficult to deploy the tic correctly, since two different kinds of case have constantly to be canvassed: compare John's booking the tickets with John's booking the tickets proved a disaster.
(2) the rules get mixed up with rules for plural formation: Is The Diary of Mrs Jones to be rendered as Mrs Jones' Diary or as Mrs Jones's Diary? And do you  Keep up with the Jones's, Keep Up With the Joness' , Keep Up with the Joneses' Keep Up with the Jones? Keep up with the Joneses?.... )

So the list of apostrophe rules actually operates over a complicated matrix of possibilities:

Possession + Singular
Elision + Singular
Possession + Plural
Elision + Plural

Running all the necessary  tests together clearly causes us a problem. As a result, I suggest that apostrophe rules are best regarded as something for Party Tricks. In everyday life, they can quite easily be ignored as in todays Blog post or avoided as in this Blog post.

Added 25 July 2018: This material is now incorporated into my book Prose Improvements (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

No comments:

Post a Comment