Apparently it is Apostrophe Day. Who knew? Aside from half of Twitter, I mean. Well, obviously, that means one thing to me: Healey Willan.
Oh, is there something missing there? I mean his luminous choral piece, written originally for the Toronto Mendlessohn Choir (with whom I have – more recently – sung it), “An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts.” (Listen to a performance of it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RCNyXDsEFE.)
No, he doesnt mean that hes going to write it “Heavenly Host’s” – its not a greengrocers apostrophe (indeed, the entire text of the piece does not contain a single apostrophe of the punctuation kind!). Its that other kind of apostrophe: a rhetorical device wherein one turns away from the flow of what one is saying to make a direct address to some person(s) present or absent. (Good grief, I thought they knew this. What is this world coming to?)
So, in the middle of whatever service or occasion the piece is sung in, the choir declares, “Invoking the thrice threefold company of the Heavenly Hosts, sing we:” and then it addresses a whole bunch of them by group and by name. And of course after that everyone turns back to the regularly scheduled ritual and on we go. So its just a little extra something stuffed in: a brief turning away. Thats Greek ἀπό apo “away” and στροϕή strophé “turning”.
But lets turn away from that to what Apostrophe Day is really about: those little jots that bedevil many Anglophones world wide. It seems more people get them wrong than get them right. This is because their “proper” uses in English are no longer confined to the necessary or even the consistent. An apostrophe, the mark, originally existed just to mark an apostrophe in the now-disused sense of “elision” – dropping something out rather than adding something in. We do use it a lot that way still, in contractions. But we also use it in places that are not and never have been contractions.
The big point of confusion is plurals versus possessives. It just happens that in Modern English we use an s ending for both (as well as for third-person singular conjugations), but we use an apostrophe only for possessives, not including possessive pronouns. It was not always so. In Old English, the forms differed quite a bit. Often there would be vowel changes rather than a suffix to signify possessive, plural, or both for a word; sometimes the suffix would have an n rather than an s; in words that had an s on both, the singular possessive ended in es, the plural in as, and the plural possessive in a, typically. But English inflections collapsed together and simplified quite a bit over time. And at a certain point some people incorrectly decided that the s in the possessive was short for his and so added an apostrophe to indicate the deletion of hi from his.
But speakers of Modern English certainly dont think of it that way. More to the point, we dont speak it that way. When we speak, in fact, we dont say apostrophes at all. Theyre silent! Where theres any possible ambiguity (as there seldom is), context nearly always clarifies it. So, lacking a natural, consistent, intuitive, inevitable basis for the apostrophe, people get confused.
Could we just do away with the apostrophe? I often remark provocatively that Id like to do just that. After all, George Bernard Shaw showed how easily they may be dispensed with without affecting clarity, just as Im doing here. But of course I know that thats actually a non-starter – it would never really happen. And, in truth, there are places in writing where an apostrophe adds clarity (partly because writing doesnt have the added cues intonation gives, and partly because we often phrase things differently in writing).
Still, Id rather lose the apostrophe altogether than put up with those apostles of the apostrophe, out on their Mission: Apostrophe with their pens correcting grocery signs and monument plaques, stroking away where they should be turned away. I think its quite apposite how apostrophe splutters like impossible and preposterous (though, amusingly, Oxford points out that the derivation of the word for the punctuation mark, coming by way of French, ought to have only three syllables, but “has been ignorantly confused with” the other apostrophe). It sure is a much longer word than the little mark would suggest. Might we make it more poetic and a bit briefer if we turned away some of the crowd and set it as ’postr’phe or ’postroph’?
Oh, yes, theres that other value of the apostrophe – because poetry often uses elisions to make the metre (Ive always looked on that as cheating, but there it is), nonce apostrophes have become a mark of poetic gravitas. My friend and colleague Carolyn Bishop suggested a special punctuation mark for this purpose a few years ago, and I wrote a poem on it, which will be in my book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar:
Had I it in my pow’r
e’en for a wond’rous hour
to let words solemn hark’d
in print be plainly mark’d,
the mark I’d use would be
oft call for syncopations;
howe’er, a plain contraction
is plebeian detraction.
To keep solemnity,
Take ink plash’d from a fount
on ’Lympus’ heavn’ly mount;
’scribe it with quill-pen gain’d
from phoenix wing detain’d;
’gainst alabaster be
Like cherub’s down, the curl
shall clockwise-turn’d unfurl
’til, widdershins returning
(profan’d convention spurning),
with circlet tipp’d shall be
This stroke shall through the ages
be ’grav’d on scepter’d pages
so humbl’d reader knows
that whilom mundane prose
is rebirth’d poesy