Time for a rant

On Monday Marci and I were watching one of the new episodes of ‘Lewis‘, one of our favourite British murder mystery shows. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Lewis used to be Morse’s bagman; Morse was the very well-read and erudite Detective Chief Inspector (and a real pain in the arse as well), while Lewis was his more simple and straightforward Detective Sergeant. Well, now Lewis is the DI, and he’s gotten more cynical in his old age (losing his wife to a hit and run had a lot to do with it). For his pains, his bagman is James Hathaway, a DS who is a former theology student and who has obviously read every major book written by western authors in the past thousand years – and can quote from them at will. The interaction between the two of them is one of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of the show.

Anyway, in this episode it was revealed to us that Hathaway has a thing about apostrophes – misplaced ones, that it. They make him cringe. And the problem is that they’re all over the place. It seems that no one knows how to use apostrophes properly any more. And Hathaway’s annoyance is beginning to infect Lewis. He’s an old guy, of course, so he, also, was brought up in the days when children at school were taught how to use apostrophes properly. Now even their teachers don’t know how to do that – witness all the misplaced apostrophes in the letters they send home to parents (my observation not Lewis’). At one point Lewis says to Hathaway, “I never noticed apostrophes before you started on about them – now I can’t stop seeing them everywhere!”

I agree. I find this one totally mystifying. What is so difficult about being able to tell the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’? Or between ‘they’re’ and ‘their’.

Yes, English is a complex language. This is because it is descended from several different languages, and because some of the practices we follow today were developed when some of our words and phrases took a different form than they do now (for an example of this, see below). But surely a brain that is smart enough to develop the iPhone can learn the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, can’t it?

Apparently not.

So here is ‘Tim’s Guide to the Apostrophe’, part 1.

An apostrophe almost always marks a contraction. A word has been shortened, and the apostrophe marks the missing letter. ‘It’s’ is a contraction for ‘It is’. Ergo, ‘It’s a warm night tonight’ is correct (short for ‘It is a warm night tonight’). ‘Canada has lost it’s nerve’ is not correct (because you don’t say, ‘Canada has lost it is nerve’).

Some will say, ‘But surely sometimes an apostrophe indicates possession; we talk about ‘John’s book’ or ‘Paul’s car’.

No, the apostrophe there still indicates a contraction. This usage is descended from an older form of English, in which, instead of saying, ‘John’s book’, we would have said ‘John his book’.

Misunderstanding of this point is behind much misuse of the apostrophe. People think an apostrophe indicates possession, so they think we should write things like ‘The earth is losing it’s forests’. Wrong. No one, at any time in the history of the English language, has ever said ‘The earth is losing it his forests’, so an apostrophe is not needed. The correct spelling is, ‘The earth is losing its forests’.

Now I realise that, on a scale of 1-10, this particular disaster is not exactly life-threatening. The human race will survive the loss of its apostrophes (note proper spelling!); it will not, however, survive the loss of its forests.

However, I am an old curmudgeon, and this is a rant. I enjoy reading good English; I find sloppy English irritating. And this is my blog!

Stay tuned for the next gripping episode: ‘Their’ and ‘they’re!

11 thoughts on “Time for a rant

  1. Tim, I agree with you. In fact I think I will write my own post on what I will call the Turkish apostrophe, which I see more and more in English, e.g. in a recent post “the four Gospel’s”.

    But is the following actually true?

    This usage is descended from an older form of English, in which, instead of saying, ‘John’s book’, we would have said ‘John his book’.

    Surely this is a remnant of the old Germanic and Indo-European genitive case, as still found without the apostrophe in German. The apostrophe of course distinguishes this possessive suffix from the plural -s ending, which English borrowed from French.

  2. Tim Chesterton

    Peter, I bow to your superior linguistic training (I am not a trained linguist). I do, however, trust that you aren’t denying that the older form of English exists? I read it this morning when I said Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer; the ‘Prayer for All Sortds and Conditions of Men’ ends with ‘and this we beg for Jesus Christ his sake. Amen’.

  3. Tim, I can’t help but notice the misplaced or missing apostrophes, either. I wish I didn’t take note, because each time I see the mistakes, they drive me a little more batty. For a good many years, grammar has not really been taught in the schools. Somehow the powers in the field of education seem to expect that children will learn the rules of grammar and correct writing by osmosis. Sadly, going back a good many years, the kids do not. It seems they must be taught.

  4. Pingback: The Turkish Apostrophe - Gentle Wisdom

  5. Leslie

    In a school where I used to work stood posted a handwritten sign on the door of the entrance, “Please remove all footware.” I cant link that to you’re rant on apostrophe’s, Tim; but some how the too issues seem to go hand in glove.

  6. Lisa Barrowclough

    I could write my own rant about the redundancy of “PIN Number” (Personal-Identification-Number Number) or “ATM Machine” (Automatic-Teller-Machine Machine), so I more than understand your frustration here. We publish a list of “unforgivables” here at school – words which, when found in error, cause the teacher to stop reading altogether … thereby issuing a grade of zero for the remainder of the assignment. I love it!

  7. Staci

    Echoing what others have said, “Hear, hear …”
    A “Lewis” fan myself, I have tremendous sympathy for Hathaway and his ire at misplaced apostrophes. It’s as if people see an “s” at the end of a word, assume that an apostrophe must belong somewhere and just stick one in randomly. It makes me wonder just how much time teachers spend on spelling and grammar these days.
    And then there’s the widespread confusion over “your/you’re” and “there/their/they’re …
    English is complex, with inconsistent rules for spelling (hence the reason spelling bees are only ever held in English) and usage. It would be nice, though, if the people who speak the language would take the time to learn to use it properly.

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