Abolish the apostrophe
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In ambiguous cases (such as cant/can’t, were/we're, wont/won't), context determines the meaning, as with any other synonym.
Its no wonder that the apostrophe confuses even sensible people. We use it to mark contractions, possession, and the occasional plural, and were not consistent about any of it. Its not as if English has always relied on the apostrophe. We borrowed it from French, a language that only uses the apostrophe to mark elision, as in l'homme.
Not content with a single use for the new mark, we ran wild, and we soon confused ourselves. In 16th-century texts, for instance, you find that people assumed that the possessive 's was a contraction of a possessive pronoun. So for instance the composer John Dowland decorates his work with such titles as "The Earl of Derby his Galliard." Dowland was no idiot. Yet he and others committed a crude back-formation caused by confusion about the role of the apostrophe-s.
Other Germanic languages dont need the apostrophe to mark possession, contractions, or plurals. The fact is that we dont need it either.
The dos and donts of apostrophes are neither logical nor intuitive. What they are is traditional.
Avid readers, especially those of us with an antiquarian streak, are liable to miss the apostrophe — much as we might miss the gratuitous spacing around the semicolon in 19th-century books, or the leading quotation mark at the head of each line of a paragraph of dialogue. But weve discarded those conventions, and were none the worse for it.
So Im serious when I say, "Lets get rid of the apostrophe." Its not a punctuation mark; its a bad habit. It stirs up anxiety and discouragement in young writers. It makes a dogs breakfast of signs and notices, sometimes obscuring their meaning.
I cant think of a drawback — aside from the reduced number of occasions for pedants to feel smug about their own mastery of punctuation. But this is a petty boon. Shouldnt we encourage simplicity and clarity?
SIGNO APOSTROPHI DELENDA EST
For a start, it would threaten my sons education. Do you know how many sons I have?
Ive no Latin to speak of: is the latter bit THE END OF THE APOSTROPHE IS NEAR?
You could rephrase for me: "It would threaten both my sons education." "It would threaten my three sons education."
If I've declined it properly, it's "the apostrophe sign must be destroyed."
The Dutch language uses the apostrophe in various cases, for instance to show that a letter has been omitted, as in 's avonds, and in some plurals such as baby's, to keep the last vowel long.
I think the only confusing thing about the apostrophe is "its" versus "it's" -- and somehow I still managed to master that years and years ago. :-)
Fascinating. Are contractions more or less common among modern languages? Which language families use them? Is it about the sounds in the language, or more a cultural norm?
I'd never thought about it, and I'm familiar only with German -- which I believe does use contractions quite a bit, i.e. Wie geht's?
Personally I would prefer more orthographic differentiation between words rather than less. I think it makes things easier to read. In spoken language there is usually a chance to ask questions to clarify misunderstandings. With a book, I need to have enough clues to understand what the author meant without asking.
Here I have (inadvertently) broadened the discussion to the abolition of the question mark!
The Dr. Fox effect comes into play here; if you're a sufficiently good speaker, you can speak garbage to professionals and be regarded as insightful. I think that is an effect to avoid, not to be proud of giving into.
This remark sent me on a Google Books search for authors who omit the apostrophe, most if not all of the time. I remember reading a few novels whose authors favored dont and wont, but I'm away from home right now and surrounded by nonfiction.
Not too surprisingly, the earliest examples I found of apostrophe omission come from Bernard Shaw. His play Misalliance includes e.g. the line "Thats what theyre like; theyve nasty minds.…" You can find the text at Project Gutenberg or in a 1917 edition at Google Books. Slightly earlier is this 1915 volume including The Doctor's Dilemma. I note that the possessive apostrope-s survives in the title of that play.
A number of other works that omitted apostrophes are too self-consciously outré for me to take seriously. (A graphic novel about zombies, for instance.) The most credible item in this category, and a new title to me, is John Rechy's 1963 novel City of Night, set in "the homosexual underground of the early sixties." It has a good reputation with some critics. (Only snippets of the text are available through Google.)
A surprising entry is Andy Rooney’s 2004 collection of TV sketches, Years of Minutes. He has this to say in the Foreword:
The one affectation I have forced on the publisher … are my apostrophe-free elisions.… I dont spell "don't" with an apostrophe. I spell it "dont." We all know the word and it seems foolish to put in an extraneous apostrophe. Punctuation marks are devices we use to make the meaning of sentences clear. There is nothing confusing about a word like "dont" printed without an apostrophe to indicate an omitted letter. That's not true for all words that usually have apostrophes. Its difficult to make a general rule because there are places where leaving out the apostrophe doesnt work.
Rooney gives "I'll/Ill" as an example, but "we're/were" and "we'll/well" can also cause problems, of course. He concludes with "a list of elisions in which I dont use an apostrophe":
arent, cant, couldnt, didnt, doesnt, dont, hadnt, hasnt, havent, Im, isnt, its, Ive, shouldnt, thats, theres, theyd, theyve, theyre, wasnt, werent, wont, wouldnt, youd, youll, youre, youve. That wont bother you, will it?
What do you think of his list?
Ah, well, if its your wont to rhyme dont with daunt, then you wont care for this proposal.
It occurred to me that the reason German does not require a possessive apostrophe is because plurals are not formed with -s so there is no risk of confusion.
"cant" and "wont" both have different meanings from "can't" and "won't". When I see "Im", I'm inclined to pronounce it with a short "i" rather than a long one. "Its" rather than "it's" has a different meaning": one is a possessive, the other isn't. If I saw "theyre", I wouldn't be sure if the writer meant "they are" or couldn't spell "their". Same with "youre": is that "you are" or a typo for "your"?
So lots of problems with that list!
I see your points, and can't help thinking they're not inherent to the list, but follow on from your familiarity with our current practice of using apostrophes. If we didn't, would that list be any more confusing than the fact we indicate possessive with an apostrophe except for its or hers? Or any number of examples already mentioned?
I find this conversation fascinating, my comments not meant to join sides so much as it's a topic I've not thought about on my own and find it interesting to hear and consider what others are posting.
it's = it is.
What you're both demonstrating is that there's no substitute for proofing your writing with fresh eyes before turning it loose on the world.
Regarding the apostrophe, I'll venture that it's a symptom of a broader problem with English that discourages many English speakers from thinking of themselves as fluent writers. That is the preservation of historical spellings that carry false, or misleading, or at best useless information about words.
I'm not proposing a drastic spelling reform, as those never work. We're stuck with sentences like I thought I could plough through the rough stuff.
But why should we submit to the tyranny of the apostrophe as well? Apostrophe usage is neither logical nor consistent. It discourages beginning writers, who have enough to discourage them already. Why put up with it?
#30: The usage of the letter "e" is neither logical nor consistent, but we don't propose removing all examples of it. We could remove a lot of the uses and leave the contractions where it functions as an orthographic letter; "don't", "he'll", etc. are just as consistent as any other spelling in English.
In any case, if you're so intrepid, lead the way. We're not French or German; the only way this change is going to go through is by the weight of the writers using it.
So, rather than a consistent rule for the Oxford comma, use it as appropriate on a case-by-case basis?
To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God.
Im not too concerned about "cant" and "wont" being confused with their synonyms, as context will make the intended meaning clear. "Wont" in particular is an archaism that makes few appearances these days.
Besides, how can "won't" be considered a contraction of "will not"? That would be "willn't" or "wi'n't." The apostrophe in wont doesnt even make sense.
Again, it's easier to not consider words spelled with an apostrophe contractions; consider them words spelled with apostrophes.
In that case, what was the point of evolving from "ca'n't" and "wo'n't" to "can't" and "won't"? Maybe its time to take the next step.
can't -> carnt
I'll -> Ile
won't -> wownt
he'll -> heell
we'll - > weell
it's -> itz
As for the problem of possessives, a repurposing of parentheses would be wise. Giving dash, bracket and comma all dominion over parentheticals seems somewhat excessive, no?
This is James's house.
This is (James house).
Thereby clarifying age-old possessive questions, not least how one might possessivise words ending in S.
Hilarious! I offer only one amendment to your delicious satire.
can't -> caint
The benefits for poetry, not to say pop music, should be obvious, as "caint" rhymes with a heckuva lot more words. Like "haint."
calmed down by now. On the other hand, German basically effects three countries that all border on each other. And one of them is large enough to carry any such recommendations by itself.
Right now in English we already have two main sets of spelling rules and several variations on them. Any attempt to change the way words are written would have to pass muster at least with the publishers in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and multitudes of other countries that have English as a legal or major language. (And get adapted by Microsoft and other spellcheck purveyors. That might even be the most important one.) Much as I hate it, I suspect that by the time my grandsons are my age, 'nite' will be acceptable for 'night'. But I don't see the apostrophe disappearing in my time.
Prescriptive guidelines tend to follow common practice, not anticipate it.
One reason for my proposal is that I would like to act against the proliferation of apostrophe's in context's where they clearly dont belong. I believe that reducing the number of cases in which apostrophes are considered necessary would help reduce the frequency of apostrophe abuse by inexperienced, ignorant, or harassed writers.
I read somewhere, probably in the excellent book Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, that apostrophe abuse in English has had an effect on young Germans, all of whom study English in school, and many of whom now turn out phrases like des Vater's (instead of Vaters) Unterhose.
To quote a famous lawman, "We need to nip this thing in the bud!"
41: I write it as James' house.
Just jumping in with my meager two cents.
The same way you would when you speak them.
The relationship between written Chinese and spoken Chinese can be complex. But in English, like most languages, the written language is pretty isomorphic to the spoken language. Arguments that small features where the written form conveys information unavailable in the spoken form are critically important seem unconvincing.
the fact that some people are too lazy and/or stupid to learn how to write properly is no reason for all of us to sink to their level.
Writing is a tool that people should feel comfortable using to communicate; making it a tool of exclusion is highly undesirable. With any tool, being easy to use, easy to get right, and with no higher intelligence requirements to use then necessary is a good thing.
In any case, since when has "and/or" been a part of writing properly?
But context is inescapable -- it involves world knowledge, shared assumptions, speaker/hearer having gone through the same discourse together, and a great deal more. How often does that particular construction (the X's Y) come up without context and shared conversational history supplying a great deal of non-overt information? My bet would be: almost never. If you come across a misplaced apostrophe and you're able to correct it, then you've proven that you are able to successfully decode the intended message regardless of misspellings as small as the position of an apostrophy. Any confusion caused by a misplaced apostropeh is, at best, superficial. Just like misspelling "apostrophe" like I just did does not cause any real confusion.
Languages are quite robust, and people are amazing communicators. The gap between "what is said" and "what is conveyed" is almost always fairly large, and yet misunderstandings of the type "wait, one teacher or more?" are on the whole pretty rare. What I'm trying to say is that languages tolerate quite a bit of vagueness and ambiguity (check any academic work on polysemy for a wealth of examples -- the ambiguity is built right into the bones of the language). For instance, Standard English manages just fine conflating 2nd person singular you with 2nd person plural you -- and you'd expect much more confustion as a result (much more and more often than in cases such as the X's Y). And yet people speaking some variety of Standard English manage just fine. (NB. Other varieties are bridging that gap by grammaticalizing youse, you guys, y'all etc).
Don't get me wrong: I'm all for shared spelling standards (reading and writing need to be comfortable, non-taxing experiences), but I don't see the potential loss of the apostrophe in possessive constructions as a cause for alarm, since, to my mind, so very little is riding on it. Just the confusion between "raze" and "raise" is significant in only a vanishingly small number of uses. I don't even think that people misusing apostrophes (or confusing raze/raise) is a sign of them disappearing, or cause for "let[ting] everyone write in their own way", as you put it.
I agree. I like apostrophes - it enables me to read faster as I don't have to keep stopping to work out what I am reading. (I proof read a six volume doctoral thesis and commas became a rather contentious issue).
Anyway - let's do battle against contractions in written English. As I understand it, school kids are submitting essays written in text language and when that happens things are really going to the bad.
1. Dos and donts (no apostrophes)
2. DOs and DON'Ts (an attempt to get round plurals by capitalisation, and also avoid IT-specific DOS)
3. Do's and Don'ts (both incorrect and correct usage)
4. Dos and Don'ts (correct usage?)
5. Do's and Don't's (having your cake and eating it)
6. Do's and Dont's (so, so wrong)
Personally I incline towards No 4. Not yet found any pluralisation of 'do' to become 'does', but that has its own problems, my deer.
I don't think I've ever seen "do" pluralized to "does" either, yet oddly I have--more often than not, if memory serves--seen "no" pluralized as "noes." A Google tally shows that "yeses and noes" is almost three times as common as "yeses and nos," not that that means the former is better, of course. Maybe "nos" seems ambiguous because it could, albeit lacking the period, be shorthand for "numbers," as in "nos. 1 and 3."
Ah, the old looks=pronunciation approach. As many pitfalls as not.