Tuesday, 10 February 2009


This is not a slow news week, so the SMH's decision to run a 1200-worder on apostrophes surely proclaims yon apostrophe's supposed status as the orthographic glue that sticks it to the cro-magnon man. Anyone who's spent a pleasant afternoon with Lynne Truss (or wondered what exactly it is to which the avocado's down the shops lay claim) will know this story well: mangled apostrophification today, cannibalism and tax-evasion tomorrow.

I take as much joy as the next chap in being an over-educated know-it-all punctuation pedant (show me your Strunk and White, and I'll raise you an Eric Partridge), but some of our apostrophic regulations are retained purely to sort the initiates from the folks who've got other things to worry about, not because they elucidate.

William Langley, exasperated with thems that just can't get it, opines, "The apostrophe only has two real functions. In contracted verbs and pronouns it indicates something left out. As in aren't or he'll. It also forms singular and plural possessives - eg king's or kings'." In fact, once upon a time, the apostrophe had only one real function, to signal contraction. This held true for contracted verbs and pronouns ("can it" became "can't"), as it held true in the case of possessives ("the dogges breakfast" became "the dog's breakfast").

It's been some years now since English speakers formed the possessive by adding es, and though I mourn the loss of the antes pants, the cattes whiskers, and the fishes bicycle, I think it's high time we stopped pretending that there was any sort of contraction going on for the possessive-formulators of ye modern Englishe. The possessive apostrophe is now as useful as the male nipple. Like the male nipple, it is decorative (just ask my Ladies' College), but can you express from it? No. Not much.*

* Comments elaborating on the phenomenon of male lactation will be deleted. This post regards apostrophes, not nipples. N.B. I have nothing against anyone's nipples. Wilbur has eight of them.


TimT said...

Dunno about lactating males, never encountered any myself, but lactating apostrophes? I'm all for them.

TimT said...

I believe that the contraction 'the ant's pants' came from the old English saying 'the antaloons pantaloons'.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Not to mention the beealoons kneealoons.

TimT said...

Or the beagles kneagles. Or the elephants telephants.

Me, I'm quite fond of the milk's shakes. I think they're antaloons pantaloons!