Tag Archives: apostrophe

Hallowe’en (word review video)

Today I’m reviewing Hallowe’en. Not Halloween – just the version with the apostrophe.


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:

The gravitastrophe

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
the gravitastrophe!

Momentous situations
oft call for syncopations;
howe’er, a plain contraction
is plebeian detraction.
To keep solemnity,
use gravitastrophe!

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
writ gravitastrophe!

Like cherub’s down, the curl
shall clockwise-turn’d unfurl
’til, widdershins returning
(profan’d convention spurning),
with circlet tipp’d shall be
the gravitastrophe!

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
with gravitastrophe!

Fulford fulminates – pfui.

The National Post‘s Robert Fulford has gone on a grammar gripe to mark the unofficial but much-bruited National Punctuation Day.


More “language as gotcha game” thinking. While standards are important in language, they exist to serve communication, not vice-versa. We certainly want children to learn consistency and discipline in their usage, but we should also want them to think about why they do what they do and to focus on language as something enjoyable and to put their main emphasis on effectiveness of communication. Punctuation ranting leads to truly a**hole-ish behaviour like this: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=522. Come on, perspective, please! Language exists for connecting people; if in our focus on language we disrespect people, we have lost the thread entirely.

And to address the apostrophe issue that Fulford fulminates on, I need to point out again that apostrophes on possessives are neither necessary (we get by fine without hearing them in speech) nor historically appropriate. They were forced into the language during the Renaissance by people who mistakenly believed that our possessive was contracted from “has” and who thought the written forms of words should manifest their origins (but only to some extent… for instance, a b was reinserted in debt to make it look more like debitum; why not add the i and the um while you’re sticking in silent letters?). “Ancient tradition” my ass. Fulford should take a short course in the history of the English language and study some Old English inflections. (See faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/courses/handouts/magic.html to see what our possessives used to be – they’re in the G. row, for “genitive.”)

The comments on Fulford’s article give further evidence to my contention that most people who go on about other people’s grammar don’t know grammar as well as they think they do. One fellow attempts to maintain a strict distinction between literal “farther” and figurative “further” when there is only a general trend, not a lexicalized difference. In response, another fellow, trying to sound authoritative, writes “written by whomever feels the urge,” which is altogether nonstandard; the relative pronoun here is the subject of a subordinate clause, and as such should be in the nominative, if we’re going to be insisting on the rules. Another one corrects someone on a supposed misplaced comma that’s not actually misplaced. And so on.

English is fun because it’s crazy. But it’s also frustrating for the same reason if you’re trying to be a stickler about it. Three points of advice:

a) remember why you’re using it;

b) know your stuff, and know what you don’t know;

c) enjoy it, please, and let others do the same.