Dumbing down English grammar

Earlier this year I bought the CD by Lynne Truss, Cutting a Dash, a BBC Radio 4 series on which Eats, Shoots and Leaves was based. The first episode was about the apostrophe, a punctuation mark which exists only in the written word - all the others (comma, colon, semicolon, full stop) represent pauses in speech. A linguist called Kate Burridge has published a book, Weeds in the Garden of Words, recommending among other things that the possessive apostrophe be dropped from the language.

Burridge says that she could not have predicted the outcry or known that people were so passionate about it. I guess some people, when they have learned the rules of something, get very annoyed when they see that other people don’t care. My mother is very fussy about table manners and hates seeing people stick their knife in their mouths; I see that as a pointless bit of English custom which dates from a time when people cut their food with sharp knives. While not passionate enough about it to leave cards telling people to sort their punctuation out, like one of the people Lynne Truss interviewed, I would take someone less seriously if their formal writing had repeated missing or out-of-place apostrophes.

The written word, let’s face it, does have a different purpose to the spoken word, which is why it has rules which the spoken word doesn’t. And compared to the complexities of English spelling, the possessive apostrophe rules are relatively mild and logical. The most common infraction is the so-called “greengrocers’ apostrophe” - that is, using them when writing the plural: orange’s, pear’s, cabbage’s, and so on. I would personally add one exception to this, which is when pluralising abbreviations, particularly unfamiliar ones. This is because abbreviations often mix cases, so for example DVDs could be a type of DVD; there is no grammatically correct way of distinguishing between a plural abbreviation and a mixed-case one. (And apostrophes are for representing missing letters, as in should’ve - and abbreviations obviously miss out letters.)

Burridge contends that the possessive apostrophe is made unnecessary by context, but I disagree. For example, “the sisters books” could mean “the sister’s books” (belonging to one sister) or “the sisters’ books” (belonging to two), or even “the Sisters books” (of a hypothetical series called Sisters). The context may not always be enough to clear up all confusion, and sometimes in speech, people will ask the speaker to clarify which of two meanings applies. In the written word, it’s all the more important to make meanings crystal-clear, because the writer is likely not to be around to explain these things to his or her readers - they may well be in a different country.

And why does mobile phone txt speak always get mentioned in these kinds of debates? Txt speak is intended to abbreviate in order to reduce the number of keypresses on phones where one letter can require a button to be pressed four times (S and Z); this purpose has been obsoleted by predictive text phones, but it’s still sometimes necessary to fit more words into the system’s letter limit. It also makes instant message conversations flow better as they are quicker to type. But these types of communication are more like speech - they facilitate speech-like conversation within the limitations of the written word. There are other contexts where economising is important - in Braille for example, where a symbol representing a common word, like “and”, is used in any word containing that sequence of letters, so “band”, for example, would contain two symbols rather than four.

But in the formal written word, it’s still important to express ourselves clearly, and this is usually done best by punctuating correctly. Of all the reforms we could make to English spelling and grammar, this would be among the most stupid and counter-productive.

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