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?
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!