Monday, February 09, 2009

Your's, our's, and their's

Maybe you saw the news item about the Birmingham, England, City Council deprecating the use of the apostrophe in road signs. (If you missed it, the most recent Language Log post on the topic has links to earlier discussions, which, in turn, have links to the original news item.)

The council’s action should not have been news, of course, least of all in the US. The US Board of Geographic Names made the same decision in 1890, and the postal system dropped apostrophes from virtually all place names when they introduced their earliest optical scanning equipment in the 1960s. This has had the unfortunate consequence of giving us names like Fishs Eddy, New York, but it’s easier to get people to write something a new way than to change what they call it in conversation, and Fish Eddy (or Pike Peak) would not have done at all. Such a change has been tried in the medical field; but whereas journal style is Down syndrome or Alzheimer disease (on the theory that Down and Alzheimer discovered but did not suffer from the eponymous conditions), doctors in conversation, just like laypeople, call them Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s.

Except that there are no apostrophes in conversation. What people say (pardon me for not rendering this in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but that would be beside the point) sounds like Downs and Alzheimers.

So what’s the deal with the apostrophe as a marker of possession anyway? Well, it’s standard in English, and an editor would be a fool to abuse it. But that’s the short view. The long view is that, as with many other niggling details of English, the use of the apostrophe to mark possession is something that has waned and waxed over the centuries. Our pronouns (see the title of this post) are among the oldest words in English (as in any language), and they don’t need no steenkin’ apostrophes, do they?

All of this has nothin’ to do with the use of apostrophes to mark elision. That’s somethin’ that seems likely to persist for a long time.

But I do sometimes wonder if two hundred years from now, the genitive will be written the same as it is today—in Fishs Eddy or elsewhere.

And the apostrophe isn’t the only endangered punctuation mark. Quotation marks are under attack in modern fiction. Hyphens are in retreat everywhere. The semicolon, even though old fogies like me know how to use it, gets a lot of bad press. And the question mark—who needs it. If the structure of the sentence makes it a question, why add a redundant mark. See how that works. You didn’t have any trouble reading the last three sentences (or this one) as questions, did you. I won’t speculate on which of these endangered marks will bite the dust first. Certainly the answer won’t be known in my lifetime or yours. But it’s interesting to think about in the context of the many ways both languages and writing systems change over time.


Janet said...

Apostrophes and hyphens are in danger? I wish. On the contrary, they are being stuck in too many places where they don't belong, as your title beautifully illustrates. Apostrophes, in particular, swarm the Internet like cockroaches. And like cockroaches, they'll be around longer than you and I.

Dick Margulis said...

LOL. Yes, they'll be around longer than you and I, but they may not survive our grandkids (I don't have grandkids yet—no idea whether you do).

I look at the styles that were current when I was a kid—spelling, punctuation, capitalization—and note the radical changes in the last four decades. Then I look at the things that may catch on from today's teen texting grapholect (for example the use of z instead of aspostrophe-s to mark possession), and I don't think it's too far-fetched to think mainstream usage may move toward elimination of the apostrophe to mark the genitive.

I could be wrong, of course. That's happened before.

Janet said...

I personally would welcome a more coherent system. I'd start by banning the use of the apostrophe to form the plural of given names. Banning it for the genitive would be a good idea too. It confuses people immensely that we use it for some plurals, but not for others, for some possessives, but not for others.

It's as bad as French grammar, exceptions all over the place.

But I'll fight you for question marks.

And no, no grandchildren, although that probably will change in the fairly near future.