Saturday, July 03, 2004

2. Apostrophe Catastrophe

I will never forget Madelein Murphy, my former English English teacher, who wrote in red pen on one of my papers: "this was a brilliant essay, but avoid the terrible error of mistaking 'it's' for 'its,' and may it never darken your prose again!" To make such a simple mistake was embarrassing, but the way she phrased her criticism was so complimentary, and so poetic, that I have always felt closer to the apostrophe.

This little mark has many powers, which will be listed and touched upon individually; however, I must say that my favorite aspect of the apostrophe is its non-judgmental nature. Everyone from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to the cockneys of London rely upon the apostrophe's power to mark the absent letters and sounds created by accents. Shakespearean English is filled with shortened versions of never (ne'er) and ever (e'er), but contemporary literature favors the phonetic expression of accents over the old-fashioned apostrophe approach. When too many apostrophes are used in one sentence, the damn thing is choppy. When you don't use apostrophes to express an Irish accent (for example), you run the risk of writing like e.e. Cumings. Incidentally, Cummings' poems explore and play with punctuation more than anything else I have ever read.

While the apostrophe is one of the least controversial marks in literature, it is also one of the most versatile and often used. This must be the reason that Lynn Truss dedicates thirty-two pages of her book on punctuation to a discussion of what she calls the "tractable" apostrophe. Thank God for British authors and their taste for unusual adjectives:

\Tract"a*ble\, a. [L. tractabilis, fr, tractare to
draw violently, to handle, treat. See {Treat}, v. t.]
1. Capable of being easily led, taught, or managed; docile;
manageable; governable; as, tractable children; a
tractable learner.

I shall find them tractable enough. --Shak.

2. Capable of being handled; palpable; practicable; feasible;
as, tractable measures. [Obs.] --Holder.
--{Tract"a*ble*ness}, n. -- {Tract"a/bly}, adv.

The above definition is from the 1913 edition of Webster's, but it was easy to find, cut, and paste. The apostrophe, thanks to its eager-to-please and naive nature, is much abused. But first, let's see my summary of Honnold's list of how it should be used:

1. possessive

The possessive is formed by adding 's to a word, unless it's a plural word that ends with s. This 's or s' denotes ownership.

Few people make mistakes when talking about:
Joe's blog,
Bush's failures,
or Janet Jackson's breast.

Many people, however, forget to hang the apostrophe outside the s in the following cases:

ten dollars' worth,
babies' diapers,
the Culpeppers' house,
two weeks' notice.

Here is the extra tricky part: if the plural form of the word does not end with an s the apostrophe goes on the left side. Here are a few examples:

women's movement,
children's imaginations,
deer's droppings.

2. Contractions

Whenever a letter is dropped from a word or between words, this omission is represented by the mighty apostrophe:

ne'er = never
can't = cannot
won't = will not
it's = it is (beware my mistake)

But here are some more interesting examples:

o'clock = of the clock
O'Neill = of Neill
the spit'n image = spit and image

"Oh, look at yew l'ttle Danny! Aren't you tha spit'n image of our postman, Mr. O'Neil."
(so that's where it comes from. Does anyone else see the Freudian imagery in this saying?)

P.S. The apostrophe also indicates the omission of figures in dates:

I was born in '80.

3. Plural

Numbers, symbols, and words used as terms also receive the apostrophe:

The bastard rolled double 6's three times in a row.
This paragraph has too many but's and and's.
I ate eleven hors doeuvre's at the museum's reception that night.

Well, now that is a lot of work for one little, tractable apostrophe to take care of. The poor bastard is overworked and underpaid. He is used for so many shortcuts that the average literate Joe (yes I am talking about myself) does not respect him. You could say that he's underpaid, because he's overworked.

Any punctuation mark that is easily manipulated, or that the general public is not afraid of, falls victim to aesthetic prejudices. The apostrophe is more optional than necessary. It is, therefore, treated like noun and conjunction clothing. Bob Dylan can simply hang it on to the word freewheeling to give his album cover style. "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," is a world apart from "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan." In fact, the apostrophe changes not only the look, and sound of the word, but its definition as well. It's impossible to argue that "Freewheelin'" and "Freewheeling" are the same word; in these instances, the apostrophe acts as a suffix. The adjective "freewheeling" becomes uninhibited and unrestrained by the carefree addition of the apostrophe. The word, like Dylan, is liberated in both meaning and appearance.

The apostrophe is the only punctuation mark that actually becomes part of the word in question. It is attached to truncated adjectives, and verbs like a wooden leg is attached to an amputee's stump--it might not look pretty, but it functions. Sometimes, as in the case of "freewheelin'," the apostrophe enhances both appearance and meaning. Like a prosthetic appendage, it does not only replace a specific part, it changes the overall nature of its host. Commas, periods, interrogation and question marks all affect sentences, but they do not marry themselves to words. The words act indifferently towards these marks, and though they will move to the left or right to make room for a comma (for example)--as you and I would make room for a pedestrian on the sidewalk--they will not embrace that mark like a friend or lover: as they do embrace the apostrophe.

The dash comes closest to the effect of the apostrophe, because it can cut words off: "No, no, don't shoot. I'll give you any--," there was a loud bang. Modern poets and authors use dashes (and other marks) in innovative ways, but the apostrophe has the most celebrated usage of this kind and should be given some kind of lifetime achievement award at the next--what--Grammies? I whish that I could erase that joke, but I cannot.

You know, at the beginning of this project I had little to no feeling about the apostrophe; nevertheless, I feel myself becoming more attached to it. On the other hand, I will never enjoy the blatant overuse of the apostrophe typified by Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson:

"Oh, yes, you got me, hain't you. 'Clah to goodness if dat conceit o' yo'n strikes in, Jasper, it gwyne to kill you, sho'. If you b'longed to me I'd sell you down de river 'fo' you git too fur gone. Fust time I runs acrost yo' master, I's gwyne to tell him so."

The slave accent, as presented here, is nearly impossible to read aloud. The apostrophes are so numerous that they disrupt the visual aspect of the sentence and give the false impression of choppy speech. The voice that I hear, when reading this paragraph, is not as smooth or melodic as the one Twain intends to express (I do not, of course, pressume to know what Twain does or does not wish to express--I simply hope that this stylistic choice was an error, or that he was a victim of his literary period). Fortunately, though, modern literature has moved away from that sort of perversion of the tractable apostrophe.

As a conclusion to this discussion, I offer Gertrude Stein's comments about the apostrophe:

One other little punctuation mark one can have feelings about and that is the apostrophe for possession. Well feel as you like about that, I can see and I do see that for many that for some the possessive case apostrophe has a gentle tender insinuation that makes it very difficult to definitely decide to do without it. ... I absolutely do not like it all alone when it is outside the word when the word is a plural, no then positively and definitely no, I do not like it and in leaving it out I feel no regret, there it is unnecessary and not ornamental but inside a word and its s well perhaps, perhaps it does appeal by its weakness to your weakness.
("Poetry and Grammar")

Well, Stein and Truss both characterize the apostrophe as timid, tender, and malleable. I say that the apostrophe is unassuming, naive, and downright gullible; so am I, however, and I must admit that the apostrophe's weakness does appeal to my own.


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