Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Light in the Darkness IV

Today I will be discussing apostrophes. Yes, those little ' marks, those things that seem to pop up without rhyme or reason. 

Actually, there is a very good reason for them. They stand for missing letters. They are used in contractions, such as “isn't”, “wasn't”, or “won't”. In those cases the apostrophe shows that letters have been taken out of the word. “Is not” has been squished together and its “o” forcibly ripped out to make “isn't”. If you think of the apostrophe as the scar left behind from the violent removal of a letter or letters, then it becomes easier to understand.

But, you will ask, what about possessives? Why do those get apostrophes? Except for the pronoun possessives, like “his” or “her”? WHY?! 

I'm confused!

Stay calm. Those apostrophes, too, stand for where letters have been removed. Yes, they do.

Possessives have different forms in different languages, and they are not always as straightforward as the English “apostrophe s”. Japanese puts a “no” particle at the end of the word; Latin has an entire case devoted to possession. But English is a mish-mash language, one that has been mangled on multiple occasions. (Yes, Viking invasions, I am looking at you. And you, too, Normans!) English possessives used to be a bit clunkier. Here is an example of a couple of older English possessives.

“John his sword is bloody from beheading the werewolf.”

“The werewolf her severed head is rolling down the hill.”

“John his sword” is awkward to say, and it eventually – through the process known as assimilation (not the Borg kind) – became “John's sword”. The “his” was dropped, and it left an apostrophe scar behind.

Your writing style is not distinctive. It's just wrong.

But what about the werewolf? Why did the feminine possessive of “her” get transmuted to the male possessive of “his”? No, it's not a sexist plot. Try saying the following.

Ooh, naked werewolf chick.

“The werewolf's severed head.”

Now try this:

“The werewolf'r severed head.”

It's much more difficult to say, and, as I mentioned above, English has had multiple forced alterations due to invasion. Assimilation in English has been increased due to the periods in which adults tried to learn the language and passed on their mangled understanding of it to their children.

Incidentally, this origin of possessives is the explanation for why the possessive pronouns in English do not take apostrophes. Those possessive pronouns – my, your, thy, his, her, its – were the only possessive indicators for a while. They did not have any letters removed; they were left unscarred.

Plurals do not take apostrophes. They just … don't. No letters were ripped out; no scar was left. Plurals do not take apostrophes. If you are not cutting out a letter, don't add an apostrophe.

1 comment:

  1. I love this explanation. Very succinct. Thank you. :)


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