Apostrophize this!

…those uncouth bacilli
—George Bernard Shaw on apostrophes


According to the 13thcentury writer, John of Wales, whenever a scribe made a mistake in a manuscript, it would be attributed to the baleful influence of the demon Titivillus. This evil creature would hang around the scriptorium encouraging weary monks to omit part of a glyph here, misread an uncial there or simply misspell a common word. Happily for the souls of the men of letters, though, the apostrophe at least was one less thing to worry about in the Middle Ages.


As anyone who has ever visited a social networking site can testify, the spirit of Titivillus lives on. A recent discussion on Facebook I was drawn to involved a very articulate PhD student patiently explaining to a group of non-scientists the significance of mutations in mitochondrial DNA. His post was a model of simplicity and clarity. The only distraction was his uncanny ability to misspell itsas it’severy time. Everytime. If ever there were an argument against retaining the apostrophe and keeping Titivillus busy, this alone would be sufficient.


Of course I’m aware of the possessive apostrophe’s role in resolving ambiguity (read Kingsley Amis’s classic example here), but the fact that the possessive of the third-person pronoun ‘itdoesn’thave an apostrophe while possessive nouns do would seem to argue for (yet another) re-appraisal of its true purpose. I recently saw the apostrophe grudgingly but accurately referred to as “an unstable mark of punctuation” by one of its supporters, who admitted that dropping it in certain cases would have “minuscule impact”.


It would seem, though, that the apostrophe’s lack of ‘stability’ lies in its dim and distant past. Introduced from France in the 16thcentury, it was originally used in writing to mark the omission of a letter which was normally not pronounced, such as the silent ‘e’ in turn’d(also, unsurprisingly when you think about it, the ‘l’ in shou’dand wou’d). The practice of using apostrophe + sto indicate possession follows on from the earlier use of –esto mark the genitive (actually a more accurate term than ‘possessive’) with the ‘e’ now omitted. This applied to pronouns too: her’s, it’s, our’s, your’s, their’s. Jane Austen, for example, regularly spelled them with apostrophes, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, was known to happily alternate between the forms even in the same paragraph. Indeed, the genitive/possessive form it’spredominated in English literature in the 17thand 18thcenturies; that is, until grammarians decided to invoke the apostrophe’s original use purely as a marker of omission and use the same form to replace ‘tisas the usual contraction of it is, while repositioning the unapostrophized itsas the possessive pronoun. Small wonder people have problems with the apostrophe!


Leaving aside other uses of the apostrophe such as pluralizing abbreviations and numerals (the 80’s, minding your p’s and q’s) and misuses like the infamous ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (anyone for strawberry’s?), the its/it’sconfusion neatly illustrates the problems it can cause in the digital age where everyone is their own editor and hey, it’s not War and Peace, man. No less an authority than the respected lexicographer Robert Burchfield of the OED has even suggested that the apostrophe “is probably coming to the end of its usefulness”, although I would suggest there’s still life in the old mark yet.



It’s easy to understand George Bernard Shaw’s detestation of the apostrophe when you’re confronted by great chunks of text liberally spattered with deviant tadpoles. It’s not even certain what exactly an apostrophe is. As a means of marking the genitive in writing, it might come under the heading ‘grammar’, but it’s definitely a punctuation mark, isn’t it? Yet when it comes to distinguishing homophones like their,thereand they’re, it’s a question of spelling, surely? In fact, one well-known linguist, Professor Geoffrey Pullum of Edinburgh University, has proposed that it should simply be considered the 27thletterof the English alphabet.


Whether it’s grammar, punctuation or spelling, the apostrophe provides a fascinating link to the past. If the past teaches us anything about language fashions, it’s that there’s really no need to get terribly exercised at a misplaced or missing character during an informal exchange. We can’t even be certain how long it will continue to serve its current functions anyway.  And it’s good to know that they’rethere are plenty of occasion’soccasions when we can cheerfully ignore Titivillus.


Roots and Fruits

Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.
—C. P. Scott
I have never eaten a quince. I have, however, savoured the word ever since I first heard how the Owl and the Pussycat dined on “mince and slices of quince”. Mince I knew, but quince was a tantalising mystery, so, as soon as the opportunity arose, I rushed to our big old Macmillan dictionary and looked the word up. This was quite momentous in several respects: not only did I discover it was a small, bitter fruit (a baffling choice for a picnic, “nonsense poem” or not*), but it was also the first time I had ever used a grown-up dictionary. The italicised n. for noun and the actual definition I could just about understand; it was the bit between square brackets at the end of the entry that stumped me. I still had a few years before I was to be thrown into the hieroglyphic morass of algebra in secondary school, but this –

[ME, pl. of obs. quoyn, coyn, f. OF cooin f. L. cotoneum var. of cydoneum (apple) of Cydonia in Crete]

– was what my ten-year-old brain imagined deciphering an equation must be like (what you see is a reconstruction, since the already dilapidated dictionary didn’t survive my new-found mania for word-checking).

With the help of the dictionary’s own guide, I worked out that the strange, bracketed cipher was a short account of the etymology of the word (with abbreviations for Middle English, plural, obsolete, from, Old French, Latin and variant). To this day, I find it impossible to look up a new word without checking its derivation as well. Etymology, of course, is the study of the history and origins of the meaning and form of words. And given the massive word-repository that is the Internet, it should be no surprise to learn, then, that the patron saint of the Internet is Isidore of Seville, an early medieval etymologist.

Although technology has moved on since Isidore’s day, a quick trawl through the Internet shows that we’re still as fascinated by language as any 7th century philosopher. Indeed, there’s an abundance of websites dedicated to the origins of English words and phrases. I have a bookmarked list of relevant blogs and online dictionaries as long as my arm and I tend to use them as much for entertainment as research. My go-to sites include – in no particular order – the wonderful Online Etymological Dictionary, Bradshaw of the Future (run by a chap known simply as ‘goofy’), Anatoly Liberman’s OUP blog, the mashed radish and Wordorigins.org – and many, many more (just follow the links; you won’t be disappointed).

One thing which all of these sites have in common is the acknowledgement that they don’t have all the answers. A major drawback of the Internet in this respect, however, is that far too many people think they do. And they aren’t particularly backward in coming forward with their certainties about language. The reanimated Queen’s English Society (reports of its demise a few years ago were, unfortunately, premature) have been advocating an Academy of English along the lines of the Académie Française for years now in order to ‘fix’ the language – to protect it at a time when it is “under unprecedented attack”. And who better to maintain the purity of English than the members of the Queen’s English Society?

The claims, of course, are nonsense. At the risk of countering one cliché with another, the English language is a vibrant, living thing, versatile and adaptable; it does not need protection. The standard techniques developed by etymologists and others in the field of Historical Linguistics allow us to see how our language has evolved. We can see various mechanisms at play, whether it be semantic change (‘meat’, for example, used to refer to food of any kind), borrowing (eg ‘restaurant’ from French, ‘pyjamas’ from Persian) or simply the reanalysed forms known as folk etymologies (‘cockroach’ was an attempt to anglicise the Spanish ‘cucaracha’).

It’s this constant lexical inventiveness and expediency which informs English that makes the study of its development so stimulating. In that spirit, then, I can’t resist ending with the immortal words of James Nicoll:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

And that is a peach of an epigram.

*Before anyone jumps in, I did find out later that the poet was talking about quince jelly (similar to the Spanish membrillo).


These are a few of my favourite –ings

Chief Surgeon: What’s the bleeding time?
Medical student: Ten past ten, sir.
– Doctor in the House (1954)

One of the advantages of an enduring but currently recreational relationship with the science of linguistics is the opportunity to appreciate what might be termed the poetry of ‘metalanguage’ – the language used to talk about language. By this, I mean the wealth of metaphors which are often used to describe relationships between and within words, clauses, sentences – and even sounds. And just like poetry, it allows us to look beyond the everyday things we take for granted. The “swivel-chair linguist” Stan Carey has been regularly featuring a ‘bookmash’ on his blog where he creates a sort of ‘found poetry’ from the titles of books in his library. But where Mr Carey has a thing about book spines, I have a soft spot for gerund-participles.


The gerund-participle is the rather clunky name which some linguists use for what many of us nowadays simply refer to as an ‘~ing word’ and it is this form which I find so striking in the lexicon of language study. The verb as noun, as adjective, or even as adverbial, is grist to my rhapsodic mill. The euphonic bliss of an alliterative bleeding, blending, bleaching and blocking far outweighs the fact that I long ago forgot precisely how most of these terms relate to the language of language. Mind you, I’m on marginally safer ground with the near-Masefieldian delights of squinting, spreading, splitting and stranding.


A ‘squinting modifier’, for example, is an adverb or phrase that appears to modify either what precedes it or comes after it, as in “Working often makes me tired” (is it because I work too much, or do I have some debilitating condition which affects my ability to work?). ‘Squinting’ is so much more expressive than boring old ‘misplaced’. And the use of ‘stranding’ to describe the perfectly grammatical placing of an element such as a preposition at the end of a sentence (e.g. “Who did you give the money to?”) produces a little frisson of abandonment. Well, whatever floats your boat, as the saying goes.


Actually, ‘floating’ floats my boat too. When it’s used with a category like ‘quantifier’, it (much like our squinting modifier above) provides us with a name for something native speakers rarely give a second thought to, yet can cause problems for the unwary English learner: words like both and all which can move from one position to another without changing the sense (all the tickets were sold/the tickets were all sold).


And who among us has not been taken in by a participle or modifier dangling impertinently before our eyes? This might occur when the subject of, say, a participial phrase is different from the subject of the main clause. The classic textbook version is invariably along the lines of: Turning the corner, the old mansion loomed dark and menacing. Thank goodness old mansions aren’t too nippy on their feet…



The –ing words used in phrases such as dangling participles, floating quantifiers, squinting modifiers and preposition stranding are pretty effective in conveying some sense of movement in sentences and with this in mind, my personal favourite has to be ‘pied-piping’. This particular process can be seen clearly when one wants to avoid (for whatever reason) the preposition stranding found in “Who did you give the money to?” The more formal version would require the interrogative ‘whom’ to lure the preposition ‘to’ to tuck itself in behind it (like a Hamelin rat following the piper), so we get “To whom did you give the money?”


These descriptive terms obviously come from someone sitting down and thinking how best to categorise the constructions and processes we take for granted (‘pied-piping’, for example, was coined by an eminent syntactician with a penchant for odd metaphors, who was also responsible for something called the ‘do-gobbling rule’). It’s all part of a very human need to understand and map the world around us, and even though our little –ing words can come across as frivolous almost, there’s something sublimely lyrical about them too.


Evolution of a Magical Doublet

It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “as pretty as an airport” appear. 
- Douglas Adams

A question: what connects the linguist Noam Chomsky and the supermodel Naomi Campbell? You might say they share the same initials or that their given names are both derived from the Hebrew word for “pleasantness”. Well, you might say that – and who’s going to argue? – but a more subtle – and pleasing – connection can be summed up in one word: grammar. The link lies in the etymological relationship known as the doublet.

Think of cognates – words such as cold (English) and kalt (German) that have a common etymological origin; now think of two words in the same language with the same origin, like shadow and shade (Old English ‘sceadu’). The latter pair is a doublet. Simply put, a doublet refers to a pair of words within the same language that can be traced back to the same root. English is rich in doublets, some obvious (wine and vine), some less so (plant and clan). Despite the near-homophony, grammar and glamour are among the less obvious examples and, as is so often the case, we have Sir Walter Scott to thank for this.

Scott (1771–1832) provided the English language with a wealth of words ranging from his own coinages (freelance is one of his) and revivals of archaic terms (onslaught and henchman, for example) to outright borrowings from other languages (berserk from Old Norse among others). It was, however, the vernacular tongue he grew up with, Scots (a Germanic language closely related to English), which provided him with some of his richest expressions – many of which are now commonplace in standard English: words such as gruesome (from Scots ‘grue’ – to feel horror at + some) and, of course, the one that concerns us here: glamour. The word made its appearance in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and had the meaning of magical illusion. In Scots, it evoked the idea of enchantment, of how the eye could be easily deceived, conjuring up images of wizards and witches. And by happy coincidence, it’s one of Scott’s putative ancestors, the medieval scholar Michael Scot, who illustrates the development of the grammar/glamour doublet wonderfully.

Although he was also a mathematician and philosopher, Scot became better known in his lifetime for his interest in astrology and alchemy. In medieval times, the word ‘grammar’ (from the Greek for ‘letter’) had the sense of learning in general, and to the ‘unlettered’, books were treated with something approaching superstitious awe (and fear). It was no great leap for the unsophisticated to view a scholarly preoccupation with learning (‘grammar’) – particularly if it involved the so-called occult sciences – as a passkey to the darker arts. The ‘grammar’ book thus became a book of spells (cf. grimoire), and less than a century after his death, Michael Scot was more celebrated as a conjuror and magician than the translator of Aristotle and tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor. In his homeland, the word ‘grammar’ eventually altered to produce the separate noun ‘glamour’, which referred specifically to ‘enchantment’, while ‘grammar’ started to take on its modern sense of language rules.

If you look up ‘glamour’ in a dictionary, the definition will always include some allusion to artificiality, or even deception, and not only does this echo the supernatural ancestry of the word, but the concept itself also provides us with some entertaining metaphors for the ‘real’ world.

It may be more than a coincidence, then, that the differing and frequently conflicting views of what constitutes ‘good’ grammar in English are often also marked by appeals to what amounts to nothing more than the hocus-pocus of artificial ‘rules’ (such as: ‘passives should be avoided’, ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’…). It may be no coincidence either that one of the oddest hoaxes (also a word related to magic) of 2013 claimed that Noam Chomsky had just been voted “Sexiest Philosopher Alive” by… you guessed it… Glamour magazine. Nor should it come as a surprise that Swan, Naomi’s one and only foray into the world of literature, is notable principally for the claim that it was ghostwritten. Spooky? Moreover, I’m sure I could be forgiven if I conclude with the wicked observation that you can now say that one is famous for his grammar models, while the other is a grammar model. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a charming conceit.