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Avoiding a Catapostrophe

The apostrophe.  Often misused and maligned, but here to stay.  For now.

What is this little piece of punctuation used for?  Only three things.  It’s actually pretty simple:

(1) an apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter.

The primary example here is contractions.  As examples, “you are not” becomes “you aren’t”, and “he is not” becomes “he isn’t”.

What about a contraction for “I am not”?  Why are we missing the first person singular?  Actually, it is not missing, just forgotten: ain’t.  For some reason, ain’t has devolved to become improper English while all the other contractions have survived… including shan’t, of all things.  It just ain’t right.

In English, contractions are a contradiction.  Written language is generally modified to fit spoken language, because people read aloud in their heads.  Why else would you write “an” instead of “a” before a vowel?

So why is it that contractions are used constantly in spoken language, to the extent that not using them makes you sound stuffy — but contractions are considered improper when written?  That is starting to change… I mean… that’s starting to change.

Similarly, the apostrophe is used to indicate regional speech.  Where would Eliza Doolittle be without “all I want is ‘Enry ‘Iggins’ ‘ead”, or Bob and Doug McKenzie without “How’s it goin’, eh?”  And let’s not forget the ubiquitous and universally applicable Southernism — y’all.

Unfortunately, as the language continues to devolve through the influence of texting, the apostrophe-s is becoming a ‘z’.  For example, “Where’s the beef?” has become “Yo grrlz wherez the lolz?”

(2) an apostrophe indicates possession.

This is a shortcut that doesn’t exist in many languages, and is actually pretty handy.

For example, if you want to say “this is Bob’s blog” in French, you must use the roundabout “this is the blog of Bob”.  You can say that in English too, of course, but why would you?

Use of an apostrophe in this way is a leftover from the ancient Saxon (Germanic) influence on English.  Danke Vortigern!

There is a weirdness here.  If whatever you are pluralizing already ends in “s”, you don’t add another one, such as “my parents’ house”.  Else it would look weird.

There is an even bigger weirdness that occurs when possession conflicts with contraction.  There is only one case of this in the English language, as far as I know.  It’s it’s.

People screw this up constantly, not just in emails and blogs but in big expensive things like signs and menus.  Seriously, the rule is really simple:

  • if it’s a contraction, use the apostrophe.  For example, “it’s a contraction”.
  • if you are showing possession, don’t use the apostrophe. For example, “remember to subscribe to my blog so you won’t miss its fascinating facts and perspicacious prose”.

(3) use an apostrophe to pluralize lowercase letters.

This is a strange one, which comes about for clarity.  For example, if you write “the word kerbopple has two ps in it” this would make people try to spell it “kerbopspsle” or something.

So you write “the word kerbopple has two p’s in it” and the meaning is clear.

This practice has also survived in the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s”.  If you wrote “mind your ps and qs” it would change the meaning entirely.  So, um… mind your p’s and q’s.

Note that people used to use an apostrophe to pluralize uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols as well.  This practice has mostly disappeared but it’s still a grey area.

For example, you can write “I love the 80s” or “I love the 80’s” and no one will complain.  However if you write “I just bought two iPod 5’s” you will look so 2000’s.

This is similar to the grocer’s comma, or more correctly, the grocer’s apostrophe (though in this context being correct is missing the point).  It got its name by the greengrocer’s habit of using an apostrophe when they want to indicate a plural, e.g. “fresh tomato’s” or “banana’s by the pound”.

Personally, I have never seen that in my local grocery store, but I have seen it in many other place’s.  I mean, places.  It drive’s me bonker’s.

Wait!  You say.  What about the use of apostrophes to indicate speech, or to set off words for ’emphasis’?  Well, technically those are not apostrophes, they are quotation marks.  Different animal entirely.  The fact they often look the same is purely because of limitations of font.

Bonus fact: did you know apostrophe can also mean “the rhetorical address of a usually absent person or personified thing“, as in: “O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!”  Me neither.  It smacks of Shakespeare.

Strangely, this meaning doesn’t appear to be related at all to the punctuation mark.  O English, thou art a fascinating subject!

Bonus the second: there is (was?) a movement to remove the apostrophe from the English language.  It was once led by the great author George Bernard Shaw, who hated the thing.  What would he think of the grocer’s comma?  Then again, there are some people who love the apostrophe.  Who knew punctuation could be so divisive?

Which side do you fall on?  Personally, I dig the apostrophe, but I’m a language nerd / nazi (and proud of it).

Reeds, shoots & leaves: a short story on paper

Did you know when you write on paper, you are writing on leaves?

Yep, it’s in the history of our language.

Our story starts a few thousand years ago.  Our ancestors in what are now North Africa and the Middle East wrote on clay tablets.  It was presumably cheap and fairly permanent, but not terribly portable.  Every book created in such a manner is a hardcover.  Very hardcover.  Imagine trying to fit the Old Testament into your camel bags when every page is inch-thick rock.

The Egyptians decided there had to be a better way.  They figured out how to turn papyrus reeds into paper.  In fact, that’s literally where “paper” comes from: “paper” comes from the French “papier”, which comes from the Latin “papyrus”, which comes from… um… papyrus.

In the meanwhile, Buddhist monks figured out how to write on dried palm leaves.  In fact, some anthropologists think the paper caused them to use rounded letters, because angled letters tore the paper.

That’s interesting, don’t you think?  Sumerian cuneiform writing was mostly lines and angles, probably because it was too hard to make curves in clay.  As people started using flattened papyrus reeds and palm leaves, they added curves in their writing so they wouldn’t tear their new paper.

So that means the writing medium directly influences the alphabet of a culture.

And it’s still happening.  Remember PalmPilots and their own funky alphabet?  It was called Graffiti, and they needed it to make use of the new medium.

Graffiti is perhaps a poor example because it died with the PalmPilot, but in the age of text and email we introduced emoticons.  This is because our new electronic media is devoid of emotion.

Back in the days when we actually talked to people, we could tell from their tone or facial expression whether they were joking.  Now, in a text or email, we can’t.  Thus we invented emoticons, so you can still insult your friends and family then tack on a smiley so they know you didn’t mean it.  You jerk.  🙂

Getting back to leaves… the French word for a sheet of paper is “feuille“, which is the same word they use for “leaf”.  It comes from the Latin “folia”, from which we also get the English word “foliage”.

And in English, a sheet of paper is also called a “page“.  The word “page” comes from the French word “pagene” or “pagne”, which comes from the Latin “pagina” which means the surface of a leaf, shoot, or a flattened twig.

So that word “page” brings us back to the beginning of this, when I was talking about papyrus reeds and palm leaves.  (You thought I was lost, didn’t you?)

In case you were wondering, the English word “sheet” comes from the Saxon branch of the language.  It just means a covering or a flat surface.  Nothing exciting there.

Note that some people were also writing on tree bark, especially birch bark.  In fact, the term “codex” which used to mean book (and sometimes still does) comes from Latin “caudex”, meaning “bark”.  That is another leaf reference, sort of.

To complete this historical picture: besides paper, European monks also used parchment.  This is the skin of a lamb, goat, pig, deer, or calf, which is stretched and treated to make a clean and durable writing surface.  In the case of calfskin, it was also called “vellum” which comes from the French “veau”, from which we also get “veal”.

Returning again to leaves… the English word leaf references paper in two ways:

  1. a leaf is a single sheet of a paper with two sides, such as you would find in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  It comes from medieval bookbinding methods, when monks would lay four sheets of parchment on top of each other, then fold them over to make eight leaves.  Since each leaf had two sides, that gave them sixteen pages.  This was called a quire, for “four”, and later called a gathering or a signature.  They painstakingly filled the pages of each gathering with medieval stuff, then bound all the gatherings together into a book.  As they replaced parchment with paper, they could fit more than eight leaves in a gathering, but the principle of binding leaves into gatherings and gatherings into books is still used today.
  2. to leaf through a book, magazine, or newspaper is to skim it by quickly turning over pages.  I assume this is simply verb-alizing the noun in #1.


What about collective nouns?

Well, we call a handful of paper a “sheaf”, and we buy it in reams.

Sheaf also comes from the Saxon branch of English, as a bundle of grain or straw.  That ties into papyrus, a bit.

Ream, however, comes to us through French and Spanish, originally from Moorish Arabic for “collect into a bundle”.  It was around 480 pages, but varied all over the place.  There is an international standard ream now, which is exactly 500 pages, but apparently reams of a little less and a little more are still around.

So the next time you come home from Staples with a fresh ream of paper, before you pull out a sheaf and stick it into your printer, give a thought to its five thousand year history and all those monks that came before you.  Scribing, illuminating, and bookbinding was high art — something a laptop and printer will never replace.


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