Bozen /Liverpool – It is indeed a long time since Britannia ruled the waves and the English strode proudly across the Empire dominating the world scene. One of the bastions of this influence was of course the Queen’s English, as a correct production of the mother tongue was termed. However in this day and age there is much concern that the use of the language is not what it was and in fact it often appears that overseas speakers of English have a greater command of the English than the indigenous Brits. How can this be true?
There is no better instance of this phenomenon than in the case of the ‘apostrophe s’. Now the simple rule used to be that the ‘apostrophe s’ had two main usages: first to be used when a letter or more was missing due to a contraction used in spoken English e.g. ‘‘I think it’s going to rain today’’; second in the case of the so-called Anglo Saxon possessive (or genitive case) when there was an object belonging to a person e.g. ‘‘This is John’s book’’. If John had more than one book this would not make for undue complication as the ‘apostrophe s’ would remain. However if one is to refer to “the books of the boys” i.e. more than one book of more than one boy, it becomes “the boys’ books”. What we have nowadays seems to be complete ignorance of the basic rule and if shop signwriting, restaurant menus, and street signposting are anything to go by the escalation in misuse is somewhat disturbing. So disturbing in fact that The Apostrophe Protection Society was started in 2001 by John Richards, now its Chairman, with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language. The site has as of the time of writing had 1,785,659 hits so there is ether a great deal of curiosity or uncertainty out there, or indeed a good dose of both these elements. The site makes for fascinating reading … and viewing, as some of the mistakes made are out of this world, or at least they would be if they were not very real examples taken from everyday life, mostly of persons trying to make a good impression and get a point across – but not making too good a job of it. The proof of the pudding can be had by peeping at www.apostrophe.org.uk
And is often the case in these circumstances there are added complications for the intrepid writer of English to cope with. One common mistake is to treat the possessive adjective as the possessive noun so that “the dog’s eating it’s bone” appears when we all know what the correct rendering of this expression should be! The fact that words sound the same is not sufficient justification to treat them the same when they belong to different families.
Another excruciating misuse and which is finding ever more popularity if street signs are anything to go by is the use of the apostrophe in the plural form when it should be nowhere in sight. Inventions such as ’House’s for sale’ and ‘Drink’s can be ordered at the bar’ defy the imagination, or at least they used to. And embarrassing as it may seem there is even the crime of mistaking a third person form as being suitable for a touch of apostrophising – “he who swear’s lose’s” is a favourite. And to finish with a smile, another smile even, there is nothing more infuriating than when a foreign language is played with and ignorance comes shining through. No better example than the one whereby ‘Panini here’ comes out as ‘Paninis here’ or worse still if possible ‘Panini’s here’, this latter really being a double whammy to any purist at heart.
Here some of the prime instances of the use or better said incorrect use of the ‘apostrophe s’ have been touched on but a more thorough study would produce one or two more cases to be studied – the fascination never ends.
How to explain the disturbing situation is a task and a half. Is it just down to a lowering of educational standards? Is greater emphasis being placed on spoken English rather than the correct grammatical forms? Certainly in a fast moving world correspondence is often reduced to an sms quickly slapped down with no great thought.
Long gone is the time of regular letter writing where the art of expression and correctness where worthy aims and there was pride not only in the forms of expression adopted but also in the handwriting itself. Those mystical times seem to be replaced by an ‘anything will do’ approach where as long as the meaning is clear little attention is paid to form. The age of technological advancement has a lot to answer for and predictive text functions are not an absolute when it comes to precision. The age of reason seems to definitely belong to the past.
Apart from the high tech factor are there other considerations which lead to this proliferation of misuse? One is certainly the decline in reading in favour of television watching or video games playing. Learning by absorption is an oft underestimated means and the less one reads the more likely it is that inaccurate spelling and grammatical error will result. Our over dependence on automatic corrective systems is another factor – automatic spell checks and even automatic sentence correction mean that no great attention need to be paid to what one is writing and as a result qualities such as self-awareness and analytical thought drop well down the ranking order.
Another factor has to be educational standards. Once upon a time it was taken as the Holy Grail that the fundamentals of an educational upbringing were reading, writing and arithmetic (spell check correction maybe necessary!). Such simplicity and adhesion to a line of thought has long gone out the window and it seems that every governmental change results in a change of priorities. This is not to criticise unduly for changes need to be made so as to prepare children for a life outside school in an ever changing world where job opportunities are perhaps limited and need to be geared to certain skill sets – and correct use if the ‘apostrophe s’ is not seen as an essential prerequisite.
Mention need to be made of the media also an in particular television and journalism. It is now a fact of life that sports personalities take on an ever important role in chat shows and after match expert opinion analysis. Unfortunately, many – due to the fact that they have become sports stars at an early age – are not the most eloquent of speakers and their demand of grammar is hardly outstanding and yet they attract millions of viewers and certain expressions are perpetuated in time. A common mistake in this field of play is the misuse of the simple past and present perfect tense so that ‘The player did well’ becomes ‘The player done well’ or ‘I have seen her play better’ becomes ‘I have saw her play better’. The poet Wordsworth would turn in his grave hearing such utterances. This comment is not intended to necessarily disparage sport stars for such language is to be heard day and night on the streets of cities all around Great Britain and has become an almost excepted form of parlance. Wordsworth turns again.
This whole topic scrutiny begs the question as to whether correct usage is in any way important. The argument, if it is indeed a consideration at all, is not just limited to the ‘apostrophe s’ but extends to other language functions. Take for example the hyphen as a means to connect words and result in a distinctive meaning. It seems to be overused to say the least and how many of us can even guess at the original instructions for correct use of the hyphen? It seems to be used willy-nilly (or should that be ‘williynilly’?) and any excuse to hyphenate is a welcome one. It even seems to be used for the word ‘breathtaking’ so this definite one-worder becomes ‘breath-taking’. Perhaps this is a step too far and it will certainly take the breath away from many readers.
On the evidence provided herein and the priorities in this modern world it might well be determined that the issue no longer matters and what is important is that your interlocutor understands or can guess at the meaning intended. This would seem too easy a justification for there is still much to be had in the Queen’s English as a means of expression, a means of linking discourse effectively and convincingly, and respecting the art of writing as laid down by our forefathers. A dramatic statement this but there are still walks of life where precision and content are essential and misinterpretation can lead to calamity. It is not always a tenuous question of whether the singular or plural is intended as might be the case in ‘dog’s is not allowed’. There are at times legal and contractual and fiscal questions at stake where inaccuracy can prove costly. Moreover in presenting oneself for employment or other purposes letters of presentation and curricula are unlikely to get past the first screening unless written and laid out in an acceptable and correct form. Society may have advanced and gone in one way or another but we are still not at the stage where we have no doubts, qualms, or reservations about the competence or suitability, or indeed attractiveness of a person who fails to grasp the simple rules of grammar. The author: Geoff Barclay spends much time in South Tyrol for business and pleasure, and his ‚Brain International Ltd‘ assists individuals, companies and organisations in their internationalisation process – via market entry and business development support and a range of services embracing training, translations, and language immersion abroad – all intended to better equip the interested party looking to expand horizons.
e.g. (lat.: exempli gratia): beispielsweise
i.e. (lat. id est): und zwar
anything to go by: nach etw. urteilen
proof of the pudding: Probieren geht über Studieren
to peep: (heimlich) gucken
to cope with: etw. bewältigen, gegen etw. ankommen
to defy sth.: sich etw. widersetzen
whammy: harter Schlag
Holy Grail: Heiliger Gral
willy-nilly: planlos, nolens volens
tenuous: unbedeutend, dürftig