05 August 2011

The sexist apostrophe

The apostrophe; so much unnecessary difficulty. We’ve all seen greengrocers’ apostrophes — orange’s and lemon’s — but it’s easy to avoid this.
You’ve been taught something about apostrophes indicating possession or letters left out. That’s correct, but as an academic rule for grammarians, it’s not much use in the real world. We don’t think of rules before we speak, we just ‘know’ how to speak. And apostrophes are an aid to speech, converting the written to the spoken.
I said previously that punctuation is an aid to reading aloud, and the apostrophe is an aid to speech.
Not sure of this? Think of the difference between wed and we’d. You know how to pronounce wed and we’d and know that they differ. But without the apostrophe, how would you say wed? As wed or as we’d? You can’t easily tell, you have to read ahead to see what the meaning is, then return to the wed. That’s not very easy, or practical.
Well, you’re not convinced? Or did I mean we’ll? Or, After wed wed, wed a reception.
If you’ve never seen unpunctuated text, have a look at the last chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Eight very long sentences — really paragraphs — with no punctuation, bar the final full stop at the end, at the book’s and Molly’s — ahem — finish. It’s very difficult to read — it’s meant to be — because Joyce wanted to show that we don’t think in punctuation, but continuously.
The ‘rule’ about possession or letters left out is really the same thing. Really.
The phrase Arthur’s sword is a shorthand for Arthur his sword. No more than this, but you are seeing an historical shadow, the Anglo-Saxon phrase in full would have been something like to (the) Arthur his (made) sword. That’s a bit complex. Think of Arthur’s sword as a contraction of Arthur his sword with the hi of his omitted.
If you are still puzzled about Arthur’s sword, try changing it to the sword of Arthur. If you can rewrite it with the of word, then it’s a possessive, it comes with an apostrophe.
So, the ‘possession’ rule is simply a shorthand for ‘his’. And it shows that letters are omitted, and that two words are compressed into one.
What if there are more than one possessors? Things have simplified even in my lifetime. We were taught that Ross’s’ Mineral Waters was exactly correct (Mineral Waters is N Ireland speak for lemonade). You can see that Ross’s’ is a relic of Ross his firm his (Mineral Waters), but today this would be written more simply as Ross’s. Not so precise, but simpler and rather more elegant.
Boatswain is not pronounced as it’s written, but as bosun. And bosun can also be written as bo’sun or bo’s’n. It’s your choice, or your editor’s choice. Here, the apostrophe indicates letters omitted, again to make it easier to show how the word should be pronounced. Yet, there are plenty of common phrases where the apostrophes are ignored today: good bye is a contraction of God be with you. (This means that I hope that God will go with you until we meet again on this earth. The Irish see you [later] is short for may the Lord keep and preserve you so that we will see each other again in the future.)
Is it it’s or its? This is easy; think of his. We don’t write h’s, we write his, or ’s. If you can replace its with his, then it is its, not it’s. But if you want it is, then drop the i to give it’s.
You will, I hope, have noticed an anachronism. How does the phrase Marion’s knickers relate to Marion her knickers?
It doesn’t. We have to look back to history again, to when — it wasn’t so long ago — when women were the possessions or chattels of men. Women didn’t (normally) own anything; their man did. So Marion’s knickers is really Marion (to) her man his knickers. Sorry, but I’m only the messenger*.
So, when you read Marion’s knickers, just remember that the apostrophe is sexist.

* There are still echoes of the idea that a woman is a man’s chattel; think of a wedding. The father (owner) brings the woman and gives her away to the groom (the next owner).


There’s lots of books and websites telling you how to punctuate your great novel or blog. There’s lots of rules about subordinate clauses, indirect speech and the use and misuse of apostrophes. Rules, rules. Overawed? 
Relax, it’s all really simple. You only have to understand and remember one thing — and it’s not even a rule.
We learn to speak by hearing others — our parents — and responding, and being applauded for our efforts. We aren’t taught to speak (I know, for the deaf and others it’s different), we just practice it. Spoken language is natural, inherent.
But we had to be taught the alphabet, and be taught to read. Reading isn’t natural, it’s artificial — something that’s man-made.
And before there was mass production printing, there wasn’t much impetus to learn to read, and very few people could. And if reading is hard, writing is another (higher) level of difficulty — it’s quite possible, though unusual, to be able to read but not to write.
Printing brought its own, unexpected problems. Before mass printing you could spell words more or less as you pleased,  and you certainly didn’t need to be consistent. Printers enforced uniform spelling, so we all had to be taught how to spell. English spelling is difficult — as a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French with Viking and other influences, there is little consistency. Spell checkers are an aid, but are not infallible. 
It seems odd today, but books always used to be read aloud. If you were ordinary, you read aloud to yourself. If you were posh, you had someone to read to you. The spoken word is natural, after all, and books were and are just peoples’ (spoken) thoughts written down. 
And because you, the reader, had to know where the emphases and the pauses were, you needed help.
The help came in the form of printers’ marks. They were initially designed to facilitate the spoken-aloud reading. Although we mostly read to ourselves these days — silent reading — the marks still show us how to say things aloud.
So, we have commas, semi-colons, colons and full stops to show us pauses (of increasing length), or where the writer digresses from the main theme. And we have new paragraphs to show where there is a significant change of topic, or of speaker. (Much easier than the old fashioned ¶in the middle of a body of text.)
How do we know if a character in a novel is speaking? Easy, they are being quoted, so what they say goes in quotation marks. “Like this.”  ‘Or even like this.’ Because choosing single or double is a matter of taste, or design. But if you are James Joyce you’d write like this:
— Sure it’s a fine day, Bloom said, and a good one for a walk.
Joyce didn’t like quotation marks, and used ‘—‘ to indicate that someone was going to speak. He didn’t thereafter indicate what the narrator was saying, and what the character was saying — you have to work it out. It was one way that he indicated the limitations of the printed word to show thoughts, ideas.
If he’d written in French, you would have seen, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, «and a good one for a walk.» Or, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, and a good one for a walk. You have to work out what Bloom said, what he or the narrator thought. Which just shows us that printers’ marks — punctuation — are no more than symbols that we recognise, and know how to deal with, something to make reading and comprehension easier.
If someone says who, what, where, why, when or how you can be certain they are asking a question. Listen carefully to someone asking a question; their voice rises at the end of the sentence. Sometimes, someone is questioning what’s been said — think of Lady Bracknell and “A handbag”. To show that she’s questioning what she’s been told, this becomes, “A handbag?”
Someone wants to emphasise a point? Emphasis! That’s how! Listen to people speaking!
So, you want to punctuate? Read it aloud, see where the emphases, the pauses the questions are, which character is speaking and you won’t go far wrong. Text-to-speech programs are very helpful for this, and a very useful way of seeing if you’ve left a word out.
Punctuation? It’s all about reading aloud.
The apostrophe? Yes, it too is an aid to speaking aloud, but it’s more than this. Another story.