Information Sheet # 92

October 1, 1995


[Every Autumn when I begin constructing new Word Shops, my natural inclination is to reconsider my summer reading, hoping to find tidbits potentially interesting to the Coe community, perhaps even useful to faculty enmeshed in our writing-across-the-curriculum program. For this first issue of the 1995-96 school year, I thought it appropriate to reproduce a conversation I listened to this past June and July via the Internet. The discussion group involves mostly writing center directors asking questions, seeking information, celebrating promotions, exchanging chit-chat, and on occasion exploring issues ranging from deciphering Derrida to discussing what to do about apostrophes. While I suppose everyone at Coe is anxious to know how Derrida's stock is doing on the writing center stock exchange, I decided it would be more entertaining--and perhaps enlightening--to provide a sample of comments from the apostrophe thread, which involved about 50 messages over a three-week period. Since anyone giving writing assignments will inevitably be faced with missing and extraneous apostrophes, perhaps it's worth pondering what we think of these little punctuation gnats. And, inevitably, what we think of the apostrophe tells us something about how we view many other conventions of Standard English. As always, your comments and responses are welcome. --Bob Marrs]

D.A.: Let me change from professor to prophetess: the apostrophe as we know it is on the way out. After teaching for years and years--and teaching the very smart for about the last 10--it is going, gone, out. No one but us cares--except the grammar police. The "kids" have decided against its need, and only occasionally in a fit of guilt use it's when they mean its. When I throw an apostrophe tantrum they will sullenly put some in for awhile, then...

S.K. : The apostrophe for possessives is also a mistake! It's based on an Early modern English reinterpretation of noun phrases with possessive of nouns ending in s, z, ch, j like Mars's armor (pronounced marzIz armor) as appositive constructions like Mars, his armor, which could be pronounced without the h (i.e. Mars (h)is armor). In other words, the apostrophe is marking a lost h that never was there in the first place. You get interesting evidence for the reinterpretation from back spellings like Mrs. Sands his maid.

J.W. : Dittos on funny dots. When a student starts to cloud up and get frustrated about punctuation, I tell them, "when in doubt, do without." I knew a kid in high school who would put quotation marks around something just to make it sparkle.

J.S. : I agree--it's on its way out. :) But not just by kid fiat. Can you think of any examples where, were the apostrophe gone, you couldn't figure out the meaning anyway? It's a redundant marker in many ways.

If I rewrote the above sentences without apostrophes, you might fidget because you're used to their presences. But you would likely understand the sentences in exactly the same way. It's and its don't occur in the same context. Neither do your and you're. And the context is what reveals the meaning. No need for the little "comma thing" (as one of my students used to call it.) Notice the past participle is also fading: iced tea is becoming ice tea.

S.: Who declared it "dead"? Is there going to be an autopsy? Gee, I'm not even willing to accept that it's on the verge of extinction. I hadn't even considered putting it on the endangered species list.

F.: The sort of ruleless rule of the comma splice, which survives so hardily, makes me think the apostrophe will live a long and happy life. I think it's a good indicator, precise and neat. Perhaps the illiteracy of store signs, which cannot distinguish between plurals and possessives, indicates that s marker especially as a plural will not survive after the apostrophe's demise.

A.: If apostrophes could be changed to drips of water, I am certain all the ones Faulkner dropped would create quite a havoc on the Mississippi right now. Still, most of us (I assume) enjoy his stories, and I don't recall problems adapting to apostrophes' absence in any of his novels.

E.L.: I'm afraid I have to join with those who see the end of the apostrophe in the near future. I also wonder if comma splices will stop being an error soon. I guess I have this evolutionary view of grammar: any form that serves a purpose will prosper but those that don't will die out. So, if I am a prophet, I think we will see the end of "which" "whom" (which already has a society devoted to Whom's doom) and see the growth of the construction " the <singular noun> . . . they." I kind of like the unruliness of language.

C.B.: I doubt that any of us will see the demise of the apostrophe or relative pronouns--language changes at a much slower pace than humans live. Jeanne mentioned redundancy as a reason for this predicted demise. But isn't redundancy one of the things we value in our language? In all languages? Patterns in poetry? Transitions in prose (intros and conclusions)? Parallel construction? Cadence? Isn't redundancy what makes it possible to have infinite linguistic variety in a finite system?

J.: I know I will find myself deep in linguistic water momentarily and have to swim for my life. I agree that redundancy is a feature of the language and that it provides richness. But the apostrophe mark is solely a function of print. It does not exist in spoken language. And for that reason I think it and other markers like commas are always going to be fluid and subject to abandonment in ways that words and syntactical structures never will be.

S.: I guess one man's 'unruliness' is another's slovenliness.

E.C.: Language changes slowly? I wonder if you'd be willing to qualify that statement, Cliff? Otherwise, you & I have a chasmic gap in our understanding of the nature of language.

Seems to me language is changing continuously, even as we type! New words sprout like mushrooms, old words fade away and blink out as usage declines and only dictionaries remember, verbs get nounified/nouns verbified, what's grammatical in an academic journal is different from what's grammatical on the streets of St. Louis, what's acceptable in an academic journal today is different from what was acceptable 10 years ago. A tv commercial comes up with a snappy phrase and quite suddenly people everywhere are saying it.

Language is like a moiling, broiling, bubbling brew--always moving, writhing, splashing and leaping. Stability is a reassuring myth. When and where does language change slowly.

"The right map is the one that tells you the lies you need to know."
--O.B. Hardison

C. : I agree that certain print markers aren't present in spoken language (indents, page numbers, spacing, etc.) though I'm interested in learning to speak in 14 point Helvetica with bold, underline, and italic option. I think this was Derrida's philosophical point--he difference/differance thing. But I'm not sure that the non-presence of certain markers in speech convinces me that these features are more subject to change and perhaps even extinction. I'd actually argue that written language (and all its markers) has a permanence that belies its mutability. I mean, beyond writing's concrete manifestation (black marks on a page), written language guides (and perhaps determines) so much of what we do (instruction manuals, laws, contracts, etc.). Because writing carries such weight, I suspect these markers we're talking about are more permanent than we imagine.

S.: Should we all resort to e.e. cummings' punctuation free (and capitalization free) writing?

 What grammatical claptrap exists in spoken language? We "breathe" when we speak. Much of punctuation reflects that breathing. To stop using punctuation because it doesn't appear in spoken language would make about as much sense as to stop breathing when we talk because breathing doesn't appear in written communication.

I'm VERY uncomfortable taking this conservative stance about punctuation but I find myself even more uncomfortable with the prospect of written language sans punctuation. A compromise might serve us here. How about grammatical conventions that can be ignored (after all, that seems to be the case at present)? However, at least with the conventions in place some of us can look down on our less learned neighbors who can't or won't use them. Some of us can still "pass judgment" on folk who appear ignorant of the conventions--much like when someone showers too infrequently or belches at the dinner table. For me it's a matter of propriety.

J.W.: I love this stuff. And it is such a continual frustration. If "correctness" of usage is squirming away with every evolutionary step in the development of this language, then dictionaries are obsolete as of the day the last notecard is filled out by a lexicographer. Are "usage" authorities likewise obsolete the day they decide to dig in their heels and not go with the flow? My non-English colleagues sometimes look to me (and other Englishers) as the last ditch stand against language corruption, as though they want us to be L'Academie Francaise. We can wink and smirk amongst ourselves, knowing that emperor is butt-naked. But our institutions, to some degree, like to keep us around for just that reason, ill-informed though it may be.

I'm recalling the line by Harvey Kormann's Hedley Lamar in "Blazing Saddles": WE'VE GOT TO PROTECT OUR PHONEY-BOLONEY JOBS! If I teach my students enough "correct" usage to keep from sounding goofy or confused, isn't there always some weenie out there who purports to know my job better than I do and uses some BS apostrophe rule to oppress me, by accusing me of incompetence for letting too much slide by uncorrected?


I'm not really interested in throwing huge coils of barbed wire around the apostrophe and defending it Rambo-style.

C:: I'm an advocate of the subject redundancies for a more practical reason‑‑I'm afraid of the semantic latitude that not using what markers we have allows the reader (read: I'm an anal retentive control type and have delusions that I can actually get readers to understand things in the same way I do). I guess I'm either ungenerous in my imagining an audience (they're lazy and will resent being made to dig for hidden treasure, as it were) or respectful (they're busy and their time is valuable and I shouldn't consciously conceal meaning‑‑it's disrespectful).

B.S. (Illinois Wesleyan]:

But I thynk wee sould


 that form



 significance in red ibulitee spelling

 for example was regularized when printing presses began to make "literature"

 available to the masses This was a simplification of form that while it may not

 have improved readability for everybody certainly

 improved re adability for most

 In the graphic arts and publishing industry readibility

 and form

 are studied

 as both an art

 and as a science

Anyone who has done historical research will tell you that deciphering old documents can be a royal pain because of idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation. Form creates meaning and is indeed a part of the sense that is made. We might speculate that the regularization of form (whether in spelling, sentence structure, spacing, or layout) came with the huge increases in population, cities, and industrialization that required greater communication and coordination. Or perhaps the better communication permitted the development of cities and industrialization.

Does the death of the apostrophe signal a cultural shift? If so, to what? What does it mean at the deepest level of knowledge structure-at the level of our grammar-if marking possession (as opposed to the plural) and marking missing elements drops out of cultural significance? I doubt that it means we've become a culture in which private property is no longer important, although it may mean the opposite--that ownership is so basic to being that it disappears because it doesn't need to be marked. If you will forgive a feminist comparison, it is rather like the patriarchal assumption of the male as norm (that which ultimately made Freud's penis-envy theory look so self-blind and foolish).

If possessives and plurals are undifferentiated and if missing elements are unacknowledged, we have what is only superficially a simplification of language. Instead we may have at the deepest level (the level we're normally unaware of) a construction of reality that denies difference, obscures origin, and perhaps even denies individuality (in the most literal and least subjective sense).

In what Wittgenstein calls "the language game," form (in terms of grammar, punctuation, common phrasing, dialect, and other specifics of a particular discourse) generates a reader's faith in his or her ability to interpret a text. The writer has the same faith. The reader and the writer may have misplaced their faith, or, in religious terms, they may belong to different sects or believe in different gods. But if they share experience in a discourse, if the reader and the writer go to the same church, participate in the same sacraments, and subscribe to the same theology, then they are more likely to have the faith that supports the fact in text and interpretation.

Readability depends not only on commonly used forms, it also depends on the reader having practiced a certain amount of "fake 'til you make it" ritual. An apostrophe gives a reader a fact as well as ordinary "I know" faith. How many facts of communication (like the apostrophe) can we remove before we also corrupt faith?

We have put together a sort of Rosetta Stone that allows us to communicate across huge linguistic barriers. By teaching language to our children as a legitimate subject of study, we have created a Rosetta Stone between common communication and the private symbology in our brains. Losing the apostrophe may be only a tiny chip out of the translation stone. But have we considered just how brittle that stone might be?

J.S.: When I say I think apostrophes will fade away, I do not mean I have any intention of contributing to the process. When I teach writing, I don't just toss out any requirement of attention to matters such as commas, apostrophes or even who/whom. But, as I have said before, I also don't waste the time of my students teaching them that such things are "school marm" conventions they can safely ignore, because, as Mike accurately points out, no, by God, they can't. Nor do I waste their time by pretending these are THE rules and anybody who doesn't abide by them is obviously a communist sympathizer or worse. Rather, they exist and should be taught in a rhetorical context--with the reader and message firmly in mind. And am I revealing my affection for old-fashioned classical rhetoric here? Yup.

E.L.: Aha, you've found me out. My dislike of apostrophes is really part of my desire to deny individuality, a drive that, if nothing else, makes me feel very much like a "unique" individual at least on this list. But I'm afraid that all this was somewhat below my conscious mind since what I had in mind was the idea that apostrophes are redundant. Think about to, two, and too in speech. Does anybody ever feel confused by the fact that they all sound the same? Not very much I would say. Of course we can make up examples in which they can be confused, but in actual speech people tend to avoid those.

But the real reason I think apostrophes will disappear is tied to my belief in democracy. Simply speaking, the fact is that they are disappearing and there is nothing we can do about it. The story of the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike is a lovely story, but I'm afraid that in this case he, or she, will simply drown.

J.S.: Not exactly the Apostrophe to an Apostrophe I had intended to write but...

Much have I traveled into realms of writing

And much goodly punctuation seen.

Round many little marks have I been where bards in fealty to Thistlebottom hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Grammar ruled as its demesne.

Yet never did I breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Harbrace speak out loud and bold:

Then I felt like some watcher in cyberspace

When a new webpage swims into his ken.

Or like stout Cortez...

--with abject apologies to John Keats

E.C.: I wonder if it's because the mutability of language--sometimes in the form of our ability to cast off those little chips like apostrophes without crashing the whole structure--is *not* something provoked from without but is an essential function of language perpetrated by language users. Us. We can continue to communicate in spite of spikes of change because we're changing too. Language is not something that happens outside our skins, not something we pick up and use. We are it. It are us.

I think 'brittle' aptly describes the codified language, the language of dictionaries and handbooks, not living languages that ride the breath of living bodies and ripple across pages and glow from screens.

Losing the apostrophe might create a crack in a lot of handbooks that are written with confidence in its eternal niche, but I'd hate to think we conflate handbook English with the language we speak and write.

M.S. [SUNY Binghamton]: i have noticed that this apostrophe debate has, as its target, not a little inverted floating comma, but a host of competing ideologies. Some have argued that the apostrophe will disappear, and good riddance. However, some have been troubled by its imminent demise. Still others are trying to stake their claims that it will not disappear. To my amazement, there are a number of other positions as well. Each originally left me thinking, "well, so WHAT?" but each *is* important.

Interestingly I began to see, if not "sides" develop in argument, there was a certain "continuum" which people placed themselves along. "I believe" became a central part of responses, which brings up faith--which is a discussion from another list . . .

I return now to the metaphor of cracks and fissures. it has been used throughout this debate, and I began these musings with it. From cultural geography, I borrow the idea of a dynamic border. Here, I think, is the interesting part. Through the history of English (language) study, the border seems to shift periodically from conservative to progressive ideas of language (a gross simplification, I know, but embodied in the pendulum comments) and yet both seem to survive.

As living users of language, we each contribute to preservation *and* change. I don't know *where* things will change, as I don't know where things will *not* change. Who/whom and the apostrophe' seem to be particularly contestable sites, and while my gut reaction is that conservation in these cases is quixotic, I have no attachment to either form.

What I'm getting at is mundane. Rather than making new knowledge for the field, arguments such as this define the borders, cracks, and fissures in the field that is (was?) called English, yet even that title seems to be changing, as the cultural studies thread testifies. Any living dynamic entity has such borders, cultural, political, economic, and even the planet, through its tectonic plates, shows its mutability. We shift and change. I guess I've enjoyed watching the phenomenon in action more than I would have enjoyed participation.

I think we are placing bets on the unknowable outcome of inevitable change. And to further what Eric mentioned above, I accept that change *defines* a healthy arena, although I am not hubristic enough to select what or how change will occur. place your bets!


Hail to thee, blithe 'postrophe!

 Mere floating comma thou never wert,

That 'twixt the "do not" n and t

 Squeezest thy very heart

In profuse strains of substitutionary art.

Higher still and higher

 From the page thou springest,

Nor dost thou tire

 As the superscript thou wingest,

And into the contractive breach thy very self thou flingest.

In the ghostly glowing

 Of computer screen,

On which lines are slowly growing,

 Thy presence bright and keen

Makes possession not just heard, but seen.

B.S.: I fear the disappearance of the apostrophe (if it does disappear) because I figure humanity has trouble enough communicating without losing even one tiny elucidator. However, I'm not really interested in throwing huge coils of barbed wire around the apostrophe and defending it Rambo-style. And I've never been much interested in seeing grammar handbooks cast in stone. I break plenty of the rules myself (most of them consciously, but not always).

I also know that tradition and what seems "right" to a society of language users will not cave-in simply because herds of 19-year-olds don't know an apostrophe from their posteriors. All I can do is teach the value of the apostrophe as an effective clarifier of communication --until it dies or returns to health as robust as the rest of the language.

L.C.: Last night, in an attempt to make my life interesting to my 22-year daughter, an anthropology major, I first summarized and then displayed the thread on apostrophes to her. She appreciates them in a way that had not occurred to me. She likes them as symbols of transcription that communicate an important (and perhaps universal) cultural concept, that of ownership or close association. Such symbols, she says, will be important to those who dig up our artifacts. The two ways we use apostrophes may blur the picture a little, but surely future anthropologists will be able to figure out a fairly consistent system of transcription of the meaning of spoken language.

If, she says, folks can't count on us to preserve this elegant method, what good are college English professors? Surely we can do our basic job and preserve the thoughts of this century with key markers that can guide those who dig up our artifacts to an understanding of our written word. If we give up insisting on such markers, we give up our (very remote) future.

She goes on that newspapers, even when they discuss the glorious victories of the Houston Rockets, and news magazines and trash magazines and rock magazines and Latino magazines written in English and African American publications and . . . . (on and on and on) are fairly accurate in their transcription of the possessive apostrophe. Why should the culturally elite give up on it? The priorities of English professors remain a mystery to her. Is it perhaps that English professors don't know how to teach a simple but important concept like the apostrophe? Sure, they can speculate about where it came from, but teach it as a method of transcribing meaning? Perhaps they're not up to it.

N.L.: That was a great story about your daughter. It made me think of this whole apostrophe thing in the usual binary way. Some say the role of schooling is to transmit and preserve culture. Others say it is to transform culture. I suppose your daughter is in the first camp. However, like most binaries I see value in both options.

I believe this frame also applies to the academic freedom discussion. The power to transmit or transform culture is often what academic freedom *should* be about. However, if academic freedom is ensured only to the tenured and if we rely more and more on non-tenured faculty to staff our courses, such power is vested in only an elite. But then again that might describe our political, economic, and academic systems more accurately than anything.

E.C: Thanks for posting your daughter's response to our apostrophic ramblings. Her perspective is interesting, and the point about us English teacher types paying attention to the wider world is well taken. That message fits in well, I think, with the point

I've been trying to push here: If the wider world (even the wider academic world) loses interest in the apostrophe, it will fade away and attempts at resuscitation would be futile; if the world continues to find it useful, it will survive and attempts to kill it will be futile.

It's also interesting (and exasperating) to hear that your daughter would have us be the curators of language, as if it was a fragile thing that had to be protected from degradation. I don't see that as being our jobs, but I know that many people would foist that role upon us.

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