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).

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