July 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

Changes in language seem to just happen. Nobody sets out to introduce a change, but suddenly people are saying “groovy” or “my bad.” And then they’re not. Even written language changes, though the evolution is slower.

Last weekend, I saw this sign at a goat farm on Long Island.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
WER'E ??

I used to care about the apostrophe, but after years of reading student papers about “different society’s,” I have long accepted that the tide is against me. It’s like spelling a few hundred years ago – you can pretty much make up your own rules.

Sometimes the rule is fairly clear: use an apostrophe in plurals when leaving it out makes the word look like a different word rather than a plural form of the original. Change the “y” in “society” to “ies” and it looks too different. “Of all the cafe’s, I like the one with lime martini’s.”

Or these:

Technically, it should be "ON DVDS." But DVDS looks like it's some government agency (“I gotta go down to the DVDS tomorrow”) or maybe a disease.

It’s not always easy to figure out what rule or logic the writer is following. The little apostrophe seems to be plunked in almost at random. Not random, really. It’s usually before an “s.” But why does Old Navy say, “Nobody get’s hurt”?

There’s a prescriptivist Website, ApostropheAbuse.com, that collects these (that’s where I found the DVDS and Old Navy pictures). They’re fighting a losing battle.

Technology matters – I guess that’s the sociological point here. The invention of print and then the widespread dissemination of identical texts herded us towards standardization. Printers became a separate professional group (not part of the church or state), and most of them were in the same place (London). They had a stranglehold on published spelling.

Starting a few decades ago, anyone could be a printer. The page you are now reading might harbor countless errors in punctuation and spelling (though spell-checkers greatly reduce misspellings), but it looks just as good as an article in the Times online, and it’s published in a similar way (and to potentially as many readers – right)  .

And now there’s texting. It’s already pushing upper case letters off the screen, and the apostrophe forecast doesn’t look so good either. But what will still be interesting is not the missing apostrophe but the apostrophe added where, by traditional rules, it doesn’t belong.

I still can’t figure out WER’E.


PCM said...

DVDs (with a lower case s) looks just fine! (though I do like their stylistic S.)

I'm still fighting the apostrophe fight (and other grammar, too). My basic rule: correct writing that makes the writer look stupid. Mostly I emphasize complete sentences and subject-verb agreement.

I'm not a 19th Century B.S. Latin-Based grammarian... but writing in standard English is common courtesy for the reader. And many rules make sense because they avoid confusion.

I've given up on correcting the American style of punctuation before the quotation mark. It's an arbitrary rule (different in England) and I guess, judging from my students, counter-intuitive.

And I'd love it if we adopted fonetic (sic) spelling! But that's a noble fite that was lost a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

The sign about the dogs reminded me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9yg5oFIiSQ