hear ye, hear ye, Greengrocer's, breathe a sigh of relief
August saw a lot of things the world did not need, such as anti-corona-mask protests everywhere, the Trumpian banshee Kimberley Guilfoyle screaming her head off about the best which was yet to come, and her husband’s self-published 29,99 dollar book on the apocalyptic plans of commie candidate Sleepy Joe and the Democrat’s Defense of the Indefensible. We need to put a [sic] there: the Democrat’s [sic] Defense of the Indefensible. (It now stands corrected, alas.) There’s either one single Platonic ur-democrat from whom all the policies flow, or Don Junior needs to mind his possessive apostrophes a little more. [I’m italicizing quotations to avoid apostrophe-quotation-mark-confusion.]
But –’s -s’ woes also trouble politicians this side of the pond: when Bojo sent the then EU-president Tusk a letter, asking for yet another Brexit extension, he, too, struggled with placing the possessive apostrophe correctly:
“We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbours and friends in this continent our people’s [sic] share.”
That’s surely our peoples share, as in all the 28 peoples (or rather nations) of the EU, and share being a verb, not a noun. Most probably, Boris intended no apostrophe at all, and yet it crept in. Is that a problem?
Yes and no.
It depends, among others, what we want our institutions to do and represent, and it depends if we buy into the idea of standardization.
Most written languages nowadays will have a degree of standardization of spelling and grammar. This makes a lot of sense since it would take quite a while to rid a tekst if evriuan wrout it the wai thei thot wes rait, no? Forgive me, this was a bad attempt at idiosyncratic phonetic spelling! Punctuation, like orthography and grammar, does its part in supporting standardization for the sake of readability.
Then there’s the question of official uses of language, or rather, language used by officials. Ideally, you’d want your institutions and representatives to seem (if not be, hopefully?) credible, and one way of projecting that trust is through using language in a way that most people, over many centuries, have somehow or other agreed on. Conventions. Not talking here about poets, and meme-creators having fun wiz cheezeburgers. We’re talking about a kind of reference point in the general confusion of life.
Obviously, it’s not a big deal if St Andrews Street in Cambridge has lost its possessive apostrophe over the years it’s been there. We still understand. But punctuation, an apostrophe – that tiny mini footprint of an ant – if we take care over it or not, and in which contexts – that does say something about who we are, doesn’t it. It’s not perfectionism. It’s not unquestioning dogma-worship. It’s not patronizing pedantry.
It’s paying attention.
It’s attending to something beyond the necessity and functionality of communicating a message.
Should it worry us if the leader of a society does not make really seriously sure he pays attention in a message of such import?
I think it should.
Should it worry if someone misplaces an apostrophe in an agitated text message?
I don’t think so.
But where did it come from at all? The apostrophe, possessive and otherwise. Here followeth a potted history of the little mark, leaving a big imprint on our ways of relating to each other.
I am *no* grammar guru, nor a particular grammar fan, but here’s what I understand about the two main uses of the apostrophe in English:
Elision is pretty straightforward (or so one thinks, but more on that later): usually, the apostrophe flags up that one letter has been omitted somewhere in the word, like so: ever –> e’er
If it’s in connection to a verbal expression of whatever kind, you mush the words after the personal pronoun together: I have not –> I haven’t I should have –> I should’ve
As you see, the apostrophe can also stand for two omitted letters. It can actually stand for a whole lot, but that’s a treasure I am keeping for later on in this post. Hang in there, it gets so exciting!
[Note well, the apostrophe is not an abbreviation, as in Mr –> Master or Co. –> Company (for some thoughts on abbreviations & dots, come back later…at some point.]
So. We’ve got our elisions, and now we need our possessives, and here it gets sticky: a singular owner of something is easy, that’s the dog’s bones. When you have several, it’s the dogs’ bones.
If you have a singular noun ending on -s or -x, the rule applies, but the pronunciation changes, as in Bridget Jones’s Diary pronounced as /Joneses/. If you have a name with a double -s like Lynn Truss’s book, it’s preferred to rephrase as the book by Lynn Truss.
I learnt that if the noun is a classical name, you treat it as if it was plural, like Aristophanes’ punctuation. This rule is not accepted everywhere, and the (in)famous Apostrophe Protection Society which will appear again later makes no kind of exception at all. Not even for Jesus and Jesus’s disciplines. Rad.
According to linguist David Crystal, the possessive s stems not from the kind of early modern post-positioned possessive pronoun (the king his book morphing to the kingis book and eventually the king’s book), but rather from the Old English case system, signalling the genitive case through -es or -ys- or -is. Over the centuries, the vowel would fall away, leaving only the apostrophized-s behind.
There are more apostrophe uses such as marking plural when there is potential for confusion (the 1990’s; dot your i’s), and of course there’s the rhetorical figure of the apostrophe: when a speaker addresses an absent person or object or entity, such as Stella, the moon, or death. Or love, as in this sonnet by Lady Mary Wroth in which the speaker laments falling prey to over-whelming love thus losing her peace of mind. She apostrophizes Cupid (‘Thy babish tricks’):
Why should we not love’s purblind charms resist?
Must we be servile, doing what he list?
No, seek some host to harbour thee: I fly
Thy babish tricks, and freedom do profess.
But O my hurt makes my lost heart confess
I love, and must: so farewell liberty. (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, 16)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word with this meaning is 1533, just basically taken over from classical style manuals without any kind of Englishing. The first record of apostrophe as the little hovering sign marking elision or possession is from 1598. And from Shakespeare. But let’s have a look at its inception in the first place.
The apostrophe as we know it springs, of course, from the mind of Punctuation Super Star & Bestest Printer Genius of his age Aldo Manuzio, and it first appears in the ground-breaking publication of 1496 that also features the invention of italics, the semi-colon, and the hook-shaped comma we use today: it’s Pietro Bembo’s De aetna. Always the classicist, Aldo imports accents (that’s diacritical marks) from Greek into Latin, as well as the marking of vowel elision.
In 1529, the apostrophe occurs in France for the first time, squeezing between the collision of two vowels for ease of pronunciation. Its earliest English appearance is in William Cunningham’s Cosmographical Glasse printed by John Day in 1559. It’s to mark elision, not possession (David Crystal from whom I take this information offers two telling examples: the partes of th’earthe as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon legacy of the moones age). Crystal writes how it took around half a century for the apostrophe to settle enough to be widely used, though confusion quite how persists.
In his early 17th-century English grammar, Ben Jonson complains about the printers omitting his marks for laziness (or for saving space? for setting type faster?), but, Crystal suggests, ‘genuine uncertainty’ persists. And that’s perhaps why there is so much variation over the title of Shakespeare’s play which records the apostrophe’s first use as something other than the rhetorical figure. And that’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Or should that be Love’s Labours Lost? Or even Loves Labours Lost? If we’re not sure, they sure weren’t sure.
Alright, reader, if you thought there was anything technical in the above, you’re in for the deep ride now. But we can take the technical hurdle step by step. And of course, getting up close and cosy with punctuation means slowing down and looking!
So, when a play was printed in Shakespeare’s time, it would most of the time be printed as a thin pamphlet sort of thing, a booklet, which you’d pick up from a publisher/printer/book seller himself or herself (yes, there were women), and have them bound at a book binder’s, and only if you were collecting. You’d probably bind them with other plays, probably with a whole bunch of other kinds of texts that you wanted to preserve. These publications – relatively cheap, relatively vulnerable to time and use – are called quartos, because they were printed on big sheets that were folded four times (hence the name).
Quartos are a common enough size for the time; there was also octavo (folded eight times, so smaller, cheaper, easier to tuck away in your pocket), and folio (folded just once, so quite big, more expensive, for special kinds of books like a church Bible, theological or classical works, histories, maps).
When a text or author got the folio-treatment, that meant they did it in the publishing world of the Renaissance. The collected plays of Shakespeare came out post-humously in 1623 in what’s called the First Folio (there were two more in the 17th century). There is not a single authorial manuscript for those plays which are in the folio, so we can’t tell what spelling or punctuation or stage direction or or or Shakespeare intended – and indeed if he cared. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be thinking about those things, as the people who did make those publication choices were his contemporaries, after all, and most of the time sensitive to a whole lot of contextual conditions we’re not sensitive to.
There’s so much more to say, but the quarto/folio distinction is the most important bit to remember. I’m going to call the play LLL, because that’s least confusing, apostrophe-wise. So, the first individual publication of LLL was a quarto in 1598. Title page titles of both quarto and folio are always in roman, running titles (the title on the top of the page) and table of content titles always italicized. It doesn’t really matter for the point in question, so I just italicize all of them here.
On the title page of quarto, then, the play is called Loues labors lost. The ‘u’ of Loues just means ‘v’, don’t worry about it. The running title, however, is Loues Labor’s lost. Does that make any difference? Well, the title without apostrophe is less clear about the plural, for one. Are we to imagine a pause between the words? Something like LOVES LABOURS LOST
The play, after all, is about lots of kinds of love, and lots of people being in it. Love. But that’s maybe straining it a bit. The editor of Arden (third series) says it means ‘the lost labours of love’, perhaps suggesting there are also the successfully accomplished labours of love? Love won? An apostrophe somewhere or other would make sense, one feels.
In the running title, then, it’s clear that Labor is singular, so the labour of love is lost (though that meaning becomes clearer if there’s another earlier apostrophe). Or, more evidently, the labour of many loves is lost
The first folio follows quarto’s running title for its title on the title page and its running title (I hope this makes sense! all those titles…), but not for the table of contents of the whole volume which keeps quarto’s apostrophe-free title, and even offers the unique occurrence of Loues Labour lost: should we imagine a dramatic pause here? Loves/Love’s Labour [drumroll] Lost!
The second folio of 1632 has Loves Labour’s lost for all three places. And it’s only with the third folio of 1664 that we finally have the title under which the play is now known: Love’s Labour’s Lost. Two apostrophes, two capital L. Mind you, the table of contents title has none at all. Perhaps the typesetters used them all up. This sounds like a joke, but isn’t! Available page space and available type have produced many an interesting variation that seems intended, but is accidental (though not any the less worthy of study therefore!).
One might also take into account Love’s Labour’s Won (or any of its apostrophe versions), a potential lost sequel or misnamed other (Shakespeare?) play. Its first mention is in Francis Meres’s 1598 printed list of Shakespeare plays as Loue labours wonne, following Loue labors lost. This is interesting because ‘love’ is singular, so ‘love labours’ make way more sense as one word (making any apostrophe redundant) than ‘loves labours’.
It’s all confusing. Here’s a witty improvisation of a Twitter friend on the topic, when I asked if anyone had thoughts on the play titles: ‘I know a Lib Dem who isn’t happy the Tories have won but loves Labour’s lost’.
All of the above also assumes the typesetters definitely thought about the apostrophe in the way we do today. As possessive, not as marking plural, for example (that famous greengrocer’s’ apostrophe).
Does any of this matter?
Yes and no. As before.
We understand the gist of it: when one is in love, one labours to woo the other, but that’s often labour lost; and after one has watched the play, one knows that Love’s or Cupid’s efforts to ennoble people through the feeling just sometimes run up against realities of lust. We understand the wit and humour, so the number and placing of apostrophes is unlikely to change our overall grasp of the title which is instantaneous enough, and vague enough for this vaguely-ending play.
But then, this is Shakespeare’s play most interested in language, and all its pitfalls and promises, notably represented by the insufferable tutor Holofernes. The title perfectly encapsulates the play’s teasing (of) wit in its three monosyllabic words, initial alliteration followed by assonance, strung together by the final s, regardless of plural or possessive. Aurally speaking, the title is swift, crispy, rolls trippingly off the tongue, and is just so suitable to the energetic repartee-laden dynamic between the couples, and actually everyone to everyone else, servant to mistress, man to woman.
So even though I am hesitant to make a big case about the title variations, they do deserve discussing, especially in relation to the play’s language concerns as a whole.
There’s one person in the play who pushes a love for language to the extreme, and that’s the Pedant, or teacher, Holofernes, who peppers his speeches with inkhorn terms (that’s Latinate English terms), spinning interminable synonym after synonym, for example ‘caelo’, ‘the sky’, ‘the welkin’, ‘the heaven’.
That’s funny, and we can laugh about the caricature of the teacher we all had when we were young (I mean, we the humanist school students in the audience), but it’s a gentle sort of poking fun at the serious business of creating a national language worthy to write great literature in. On a par with Latin and Greek, and Homer, and Virgil. English was thought poor at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in need of words to express depth of thought, so humanists would import classical terms, either wholesale or slightly adapted into English. That often resulted in convoluted unpronounceable terms like ‘exsufflicate’ in Othello which is supposed to mean empty, hence frivolous, and which Othello uses to refer to Iago’s ‘surmises’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. He’s still hanging in there, rejecting the idea of becoming jealous. Some inkhorn terms we kept such as ‘to impede’; some were quickly discarded, and indeed mocked.
Because people were unsure about how to translate certain terms, they would often offer two, or even three English words for one Latin, resulting in massively blown up texts. The widespread habit of keeping notebooks with quotations and elegant expressions for all sorts of thematic occasions when writing a letter or speech also meant people had several alternative phrasings at their disposal, and would pop them all in rather than choose. Never too much of a good thing! That Tudor volubility, then, comes from various sources: the mixed Germanic and Romance nature of English, humanist language teaching, the project of a rich national language, and sheer joy and excitement of playing with words.
So, although we can laugh at someone like Holofernes who’s so over the top prolix, I think he’s also a witness to the one hundred years of profound development of the English language, and attitudes towards it. And love. Of it.
Holofernes’ (or should that be Holofernes’s?) is also the first use of apostrophe as a word referring to the mark for elision. The play has several likely and unlikely couplings, and lots of love poetry passed around. In Act 4, scene 2 a sonnet from Biron to Rosalynd goes astray, and a character reads out what Holofernes calls ‘a staff, a stanza, a verse’ – basically, just a poem. When his friend bungles the metre, Holofernes comments ‘You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.’
This puzzles me, because there are no necessary elisions at all in this sonnet. It’s alexandrines all the way except for two lines which are hypermetrical, that is they have 13 instead of 12 syllables, but you wouldn’t be able to elide any syllable within those lines in order to force it to fit, and anyway, the rhyme words ‘thunder’ and ‘wonder’ stand out nicely. So, I’m thinking that’s perhaps a typically pedantic Holofernian remark, showing that he doesn’t actually get it, and is throwing around unfamiliar terms from classical rhetoric in order to seem oh-so smart. I tried to find a performance but some YouTube-recorded stagings or readings just cut the lines!
I think the apostraphas in the title (and the single, potentially incorrect, mention by Holofernes) attest to the unfixed notions people had of its use. It’s only slowly that apostrophe conventions (and indeed those of a whole host of other punctuation marks) were standardized in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, only then to fall out of favour in the 20th: after a perhaps over-use of punctuation during the 19th century, people preferred what they considered an uncluttered look on the page. That certainly was in the zeitgeist with all the modernist sleekness and straight lines and block features of the Bauhaus design. Think ‘form follows function’. Think simple design. Think sans-serif type (horrible, I know). So, it’s no surprise people will want to re-think if they really need that many marks, and among those the apostrophe which, oftentimes, is not exactly necessary for comprehension.
If we generally understand what’s said well enough without the apostrophe, why still keep it? That’s what plenty of thinkers and writers have asked. It’s ‘largely decorative’ and ‘rarely clarifies meaning’ (Peter Brodie), ‘unnecessary’ because ‘context will resolve any ambiguity’ (Adrian Room), and a ‘waste of time’ (John Wells), and even compared to ‘metastatic cancers [and] narcissistic con men’ of which the world will at some point be rid (Anu Garg).
The apostrophe – spreading everywhere, selfish, showy-offy. A fake.
In 1902, George Bernard Shaw already affirms he has been writing cant, wont, havent, whats, and lets with impunity for 20 years. That’s his way of signalling colloquial dialogue. He only makes exceptions for he’ll and hell. Anything else makes the page look ‘ugly’. Here’s what he says in full:
“There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”
If Shaw says it, if English professors suggest it, if urban planners, prime ministers, and greengrocers happily omit and misplace the apostrophe (that famous veg seller association is from 1991, by the way, from a book on English by Keith Waterhouse) – if all those treat the poor apostrophe in a cavalier way, why do we get all huffy and puffy and grammar-nazi, correcting rogue bacilli on billboards and street names?
We evidently care.
Else, there’d be no Apostrophe Protection Society with the aim of ‘preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark’. The website of the society founded by John Richards in 2001, is charmingly old-school, and offers little surfing delight except images of apostrophe misdemeanour, and a handful of concise commandments (see Jesus above). Because of Richards advanced age (97 by now), the society closed down in December 2019 – only to see a many hundred-fold increase of clicks. Either through hitting the news with its vanishing quaintness, or because people genuinely Googled apostrophe. There’s a new feature showing monthly page views (ca 2,500 in August), and a world map. It gives me an exquisite sort of joy to see multiple visits from places as vastly different as Honolulu and Iran. That’s the past 9 months. We might be coping with a global pandemic of a century, but we still care.
And we still care although it takes an effort to type an apostrophe on the keyboard of the computer or the phone. It would be so much faster to write without apostrophe, and easier on the old opposable thumbs for those of us who are not exactly digital natives. So the care we do take over punctuation, and particularly apostrophes, becomes a proof for how highly we value the person receiving our message, and a proof that what is being written is not a dashed off piece of information, but an actual Message.
Enter Double (and Triple and) Contractions in One Word.
We know ’twouldn’t from Shakespearean language. And we also know should’ve, and even shouldn’t’ve. At least in spoken language. The written form does look a bit clumsy. That’s the apostrophe eliding one letter (the n of the negation), and two letters (the ha- of the auxiliary verb), sucking up the space between words into one mega word.
Shouldn’t’ve is not mega, enough, though. Not for the internet.
I found people discussing ‘y’all’ld’ve (you all woudl have), and the formidable y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s, meaning you all will not have had us. This is in answer to “what’s the longest contraction in English still making sense” from a 2017 Reddit subthread in the category NoStupidQuestions. A possible sentence containing this beauty was ‘Y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s scared to death if you didn’t jump off that bridge!”. I’m no sure I understand, but maybe you do.
Another minor digital ripple was in 2016 when someone invented whomst:
And the spin-off whom’stn’t’ve (who must not have).
I’m sure I’ve already said (though not written) shouldn’t’ve, but I only know one person who uses multiple contractions with joy and confidence, so I asked him the why and wherefore. He says it started when he was a teenager, he had a penchant for small things, and would journal in short-hand in small notebooks, trying to use minimal resources to maximum effect.
Then, with the coming of the mobile phone, he tried to press every drop of expressive meaning from the limited number of characters an SMS would allow. Gone are the days! Whatsapp and free unlimited character provision have killed the full stop (maybe), as I’ll write about in another entry.
My friend also says he actually likes how the apostrophe (and the multiple contractions) look like, and that it’s supposed to replicate the spoken, hence create intimacy. Perhaps that’s why university colleagues didn’t appreciate it! But he concurred that going to the length of including multiple contractions means lavishing attention on your writing, and so intimating that you spend time on this person. He also calls those constructions ‘a bit less mundane’ in a world of ‘self-rightously silly’ writing, and a good way ‘to queer the pitch a bit’. Isn’t that wonderfully put? Let’s hope the authorities that be catch up with what’s happening out there in the digital ether: the Oxford English Dictionary has shoulda, but not should’ve, let alone shouldn’t’ve. I think we should use them big time, so that there’s pressure to change.
This has been a long history of a tiny smudge of a mark – that yet like none other is capable of ruffling feathers over a missing or misplaced one.
But the more I work on punctuation, the more relaxed have I become. I think it’s nice to have it, and I think it’s necessary, especially in official correspondence, and perhaps also in public spaces. And perhaps also in private letters. But what punctuation is not is a tool for patronizing and bullying. It just cant be. It’s too wayward and independent for that.
So, before you correct a greengrocers sign next time you see a possessive-looking-plural, think again: if the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare had fun taking it out or putting it back in, why should not we?
I’m going to take a couple of weeks of blog-pause now. If I write such long entries on such minuscule marks, I might as well write the entire book, and you can read it there in a much more comfortable old-school fashion. So, until further notice, I’ll take my leave with a formidable bang of a contraction:
[last updated 20 June 2022]