Monday, May 20, 2013

The Wall Street Journal on Apostrophes

I'm an English teacher and sometimes we get a bad reputation when it comes to grammar.  Just like librarians are stereotyped as shushing curmudgeons (not true! I know many hip librarians), English teachers are supposed to be sticklers for avoiding sentence-ending prepositions and split infinitives.  I'd like to think I'm not a stickler, but I also have to admit I love grammar.  These two statements are contradictory: take the example of split infinitives -- I know that, in fact, the rule in English makes no sense: it is a holdover from Latin translations.  Because the infinitive in Latin can't be split (it is formed in a single word, as opposed to English's two), translators of Latin were fussy about keeping the infinitive together in English as well.  But if you're not translating Latin, why bother?  Split away!  

I couldn't resist blogging about The Wall Street Journals article on apostrophes, though.  Here's a link.  Delightfully written by Barry Newman, this article looks at the use of apostrophes with place names and how, with increasing frequency, the apostrophes are dropping out.  This is an issue I am sensitive too in part because I teach at a school with an apostrophe in its name... but the apostrophe isn't in the email address.  Now, this omission is clearly for reasons having to do with computer language and the use of such marks as the apostrophe or slash or colon to mean nothing pertaining to grammar but rather pertaining to code.  I get it.  However, it bothers me.

Newman's article focuses on place names (Pike's Peak) that have been dropping their apostrophes.  I was surprised by his assertion that the removal is due to the desire to have a public place seem public and not privately owned, as the possessive apostrophe might imply.  (After all, when it comes to a school name, one doesn't really think that St. George owns St. George's School, right?)  In fact, I had just assumed that people dropped commas (if not out of carelessness) in order to get a shorter name.  I see this all the time: Middleborough (Deborah Sampson's hometown!) is Middleboro on all the highway signs and often on maps.  Space is at a premium (hence, too, Drive Thru versus Drive Through).  But when space isn't at a premium, why not preserve the full name, punctuation and all?  This goes for other abbreviations as well; a map might denote Mt. Washington, but a formal writing situation would ask for Mount Washington.  (One could extend this argument to texting/tweeting, where space is also at a premium.  "dont" and "cant" are used there, but one would never write in this manner in a formal letter... I hope!)

I have sympathy for those in Newman's article who say that the meaning shifts or is lost when the apostrophe is taken out.  Some moment of history (the idea that a pioneer came and "found" a certain valley, for instance) recedes when the apostrophe is lost.  But meaning doesn't really change -- it is clearly a shorthand. What else could "veterans island" mean; how does it make sense except by understanding an apostrophe?    

I had much less sympathy for the person who opined that since we don't pronounce apostrophes, they don't really matter.  You could throw out a lot of letters that way -- it would save some pixels (or ink for the old fashioned) but it wouldn't help clarity at all.  And isn't that what grammar is about?  Clarity... and precise meaning.  Of all the punctuation marks, apostrophes are the ones I am least attached to, so let's hope no one starts a war on commas or semi-colons or (gasp!) the em dash.

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