Monday, 18 March 2013

apostrophes again

It’s apostrophe-moral-panic time again. (For previous episodes, see for example my blog for 7 Dec 2011. )

As you may know, I am something of a campaigner AGAINST the possessive apostrophe. I am on record as saying

People, even literate ones, get very confused about apostrophes. Let's abolish them.

I have pointed out the absurdity, on the London Underground, of having adjacent stations officially called Earl’s Court (with an apostrophe) and Barons Court (without one).

Before reading further, see if you know, or can guess, which of the following Underground stations are written with an apostrophe, and which not. Then check with the official tube map.

  • Parsons Green
  • Kings Cross
  • Colliers Wood
  • Carpenders Park
  • Queens Park
  • Canons Park
  • Golders Green
  • Gallions Reach
Oh, and are any of these possessives plural? If so, the apostrophe, if required, ought to go after the s, not before it. Yes, you need to know whether Queens Park is like Queen’s College, Oxford, commemorating one queen, or Queens’ College, Cambridge, commemorating two.

Suppose you are on a shopping trip, and want to visit the ˈbeɪkəz. Should that be the baker’s (‘the shop of the baker’) or the bakers’ (‘the shop of the bakers’)? Or is it just the bakers you want to visit, i.e. the people who bake, rather than their shop?

The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can’t hear it in speech. Therefore we could perfectly well get along without it in writing.

Ah, you will say, but sometimes it has a real usefulness, to distinguish between a singular and a plural possessor. The Guardian Book of the English Language (2007), edited by my former student David Marsh, puts it like this:

Nonsense. You can’t tell these apart in speech. In speech, if ambiguity threatens, we disambiguate by paraphrasing. It makes sense to do the same in writing: the investments made by

  • my sister and her friend
  • my sister and her friends
  • my sisters and their friend
  • my sisters and their friends.

On the BBC1 TV news yesterday my colleague Rob Drummond insisted, correctly I believe, that whether or not a street sign has an apostrophe is really no big deal, and that many apostrophes are ambiguous at best and unnecessary at worst.

But I believe he didn’t go far enough. I would argue myself that the possessive apostrophe gives people such problems and is of such little importance that we would do better simply to abolish it.

It would be absurd to force Boots the Chemist to introduce an apostrophe into their name, even though Boots started as the shop of one John Boot. With the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s (sic) there is even an issue over what apostrophe would logically be required. The company was indeed founded by one Sainsbury (and his wife — that makes two), but there are now several Sainsbury family shareholders, not to mention many non-Sainsburys, of whom the largest is the Qatar Investment Authority.

American readers can meanwhile meditate about Bloomingdale’s (sic) and Barneys New York (sic).

There is one circumstance in which a possessive apostrophe does have a phonetic correlate (and might reasonably therefore be retained): after a stem ending in a sibilant with no following letter e, as in church’s. Even here, however, the possessive singular is pronounced identically with the plural (and possessive plural): church’s is homophonous with churches and churches’, and could therefore be identically spelt. The only really awkward cases are proper names like Ross’s, complementing the already awkward Jones’s (or Jones’), this possessive being homophonous with the Joneses we may be tempted to keep up with. There’s no problem in writing St Georges or St Johns.

At least if we officially abolished possessive apostrophes then those who worry about such things would no longer be tormented by superfluous “greengrocers’” apostrophes and by people who write it’s when they ought to write its.

64 comments:

  1. It's not made clear in the Guardian article but I presume it's only possessive/plural apostrophes (the ones attached to esses) that are being abolished? Surely the council's not proposing to get rid of apostrophes in contractions (like don't or I'm)?

    In fact it seems that the council are really just removing the apostrophes from three road names, in which case it's rather misleading of the Guardian to illustrate the story with a photo of a sign saying "Childrens' Garden" [sic] because that type of sign wouldn't be affected.

    It's also a bit misleading that everyone refers to the apostrophe as "punctuation" (or even "grammar"). It's spelling.

    piː mæk ənɛnə

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    1. Pete

      In fact it seems that the council are really just removing the apostrophes from three road names

      Maybe, but whole countries such as the USA and New Zealand have made it mandatory to remove all apostrophe's from place names.

      A New Zealander on another forum relates how the citizens of what became Arthurs Pass were so attached to the memory of the eponymous Arthur that they petitioned Parliament to have the apostrophe reinstated.

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    3. In the US, Martha's Vineyard and Pittsburgh had enough bureaucratic clout to have avoided the government directive to remove apostrophes, and convert all -burghs to -burgs. But, for example, Coxs Corner didn't.

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    4. David Crosbie,

      Fine, but these are just place names. My point was that a local authority is entitled to rename a street or village, or to change the official spelling of such a name, and a missing apostrophe in a place name where you'd normally expect one is completely normal and very common.

      Changing the way possessives are spelt in public signage (for example Childrens Garden) would be a different matter entirely and would constitute an attempt at spelling reform of the type that English-speaking culture currently seems incapable of making.

      The fact that such a fuss is being made over this is actually quite a neat illustration of the powerful social forces that prevent spelling reform in English.

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    5. As far as possessive apostrophes verses all apostrophes, I think the fact that the issue is removing them from street signs pretty much makes it possessive apostrophes.

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    6. Pete

      Changing the way possessives are spelt in public signage (for example Childrens Garden) would be a different matter entirely and would constitute an attempt at spelling reform of the type that English-speaking culture currently seems incapable of making.

      I don't think so. Public signage is under the control of people who can if they wish decide on a policy and stick to it. If a local authority chooses to have MENS TOILET or WOMENS TOILET or CHILDRENS GARDEN signs erected, there's no obvious way of preventing them. They build the toilets, they decide how to sign them. Just as Barclays and Boots can spell their trade names exactly as they wish. Nobody else can publish on their behalf. In many cases the names are copyrighted.

      The fact that such a fuss is being made over this is actually quite a neat illustration of the powerful social forces that prevent spelling reform in English.

      No, there are vocal minorities, often appealing to snobbish notions of 'standards'. They're losing the battles against public signage and trade names — with just the occasional victory.

      However, spelling reform won't happen because it's just too impracticable. The apostrophe-lovers happen to be on the winning side in this battle, but they're not really relevant.

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    7.  David wrote:
      snobbish notions of 'standards'

       I’m not exactly sure what you mean, so let me just point out that not all users of languages with an officially regulated standard and who appreciate the way this makes everyday life, teaching, international communication,... easier are snobbish, nor are users of English who envy them.

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    8. homoid


      I don't know your nationality or where you live, but my experience of British speakers in Britain is that observing a standard (as with your Wikipedia examples) is not what they mean by 'maintaining standards'. For them, there is no distinction in principle between 'standards' of grammar, spelling pronunciation and 'standards' of dress, tidiness, propriety, politeness, respect.

      'Standards' are not static models against which performance is compared: they are the actual performances, which may be raised (or at least maintained at an acceptable level), but are — for these instinctive conservatives — constantly falling.

      In arguments over 'standards' in education, these conservatives speak of a time when a particular exam was 'the gold standard'. Nowadays, school children work much harder for exams than my generation did, with the result that larger percentages obtain A Grade or the highly important C Grade. This is interpreted as lowering of standards. Conservatives demand a fixed small percentage of awards at every level.

      So, for the conservatives, 'standards' in spelling are not standardized norms but benchmarks of 'correctness'. Ease of communication has nothing to do with it. This can be clearly seen in the targets which apostrophe fanatics choose to attack: one-word texts on price tickets and trade name logos; two-word texts on maps and public signs. All these texts communicate easily and clearly — more clearly, it may be argued. What's 'wrong' with them is that they don't obey the rules.

      John is right to insist that effective communication shouldn't rely solely on the placing of an apostrophe. However, I wouldn't follow him to the point of banning them from continuous prose. Probably the greatest aid to communication language is redundancy, so the combination of context and apostrophe is a useful device to retain.

      However, the redundancy argument lends no support to retaining apostrophe conventions in one-word and two-word texts.

      • What we call greengrocers' apostrophes — for example prices on tickets marked APPLE'S or TOMATO'S — are used because traders believes that communicate more clearly. Even if they're mistaken, there's no way that the tickets communicate less effectively. The texts clearly refer to the objects upon which they are standing. They clearly don't refer to any possessor. Apples are not possessed by APPLE. Tomatoes are not possessed by TOMATO. Moreover, it's not so very long ago that TOMATO'S was the usual spelling of the plural of tomato.

      • The absence — and removal — of apostrophes from logos, trade marks and company stationary is done by professional graphic designers on empirical evidence that the name is more effectively communicated without the baggage of the apostrophe.

      • Place name signs and references are displayed to be recognised. All that has to be communicated is the identity of the place. Grammatical relationships between the words are irrelevant, and potentially confusing.

      • Two-word signs for the public must communicate what the facility is and who it's for. Nothing else matters.
      —BOYS ENTRANCE is ideal.
      —BOYS' ENTRANCE communicates nothing which needs to be to communicated.
      —BOY'S ENTRANCE does not confuse because any reader unwise enough to pay attention to the apostrophe will immediately realise that it's a mistake.

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    9. CORRECTION

      —BOYS' ENTRANCE communicates nothing which needs to be to communicated.

      I should have said

      .......communicates nothing extra.....

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    10.  David, all I said is that I wasn’t sure what you meant. Though what you maintain might be true for the majority of the British it is also true that several languages of the British Isles do have a standardizing body (Insular Celtic: Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh; Insular Germanic: Scots).
       This has nothing to do with conservatism. Very often the contrary is true: Cornish orthography, for instance, is no more than five years old, while for lack of an Académie anglaise really conservative and irregular spellings like gaol for jail may still be met with in English. Contemporary language regulators typically try to remove irregularities and old hats. And why not allow for variation? There doesn’t have to be the single gold standard. To give you an example, in German those who say ɡəˈʃɔs write Geschoss, but if your pronunciation is ɡəˈʃoːs (common esp. in Austria) you may write Geschoß, while the Swiss never use the letter ß and write Geschoss irrespective of pronunciation. All this is within the standard as formulated by the Council for German Orthography.
       I read your examples as evidence of complete arbitrariness in English. Ultimately, what to mark as an error is up to a teacher’s likes and dislikes, and what to write on public signs is up to a local linguistic layman’s decision about what might be appropriate.

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    11. Homoid

      You misunderstand me. The conservative who speak of so-called 'standards' are not talking about standardised language. I was trying to explain to you what they are talking about, and why 'snobbish' as a possible way to describe them.

      There is such a thing as 'Standard English', even though there is no official body that defines it. This use of the word 'standard' is also not what those conservatives are talking about.

      What they mean by 'standards' is 'acceptable levels of performance'.

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    12.  David:
      What they mean by 'standards' is 'acceptable levels of performance'.

       And that’s why I mentioned a teacher’s likes and dislikes and a local linguistic layman’s decision about what might be appropriate in my last sentence. Much of the uncertainty and subsequent discussion about the acceptability of a teacher’s, student’s or government official’s “spelling performance” is due to the lack of a codified standard. And this vagueness is a perfect milieu for snobs and smart alecks in general.
       Of course you are right when you say that there is a (-n International) Standard English (besides an increasing number of regional standards that are more often than not a reflection of national pride), but this notion is not exactly clear when it comes to language change (but aren’t languages permanently changing?) or to the discrepancy between spoken and written English, as when an apostrophe does not reflect a change in pronunciation.
       Let me put it this way: Standard English is quite stable at its core, but not at its margins.

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    13. Much of the uncertainty and subsequent discussion about the acceptability of a teacher’s, student’s or government official’s “spelling performance” is due to the lack of a codified standard.

      In general, I can't find anything here which I could agree with. In the specific case of possessive apostrophes I can't see anything that anybody could agree with.

      Standard English is highly regulated. Not by a single academy-like body with powers to legislate and police, but it is regulated, is legislated, is policed. True, the regulation and policing is devolved to national education bodies or to individual publishing house, periodical and the like. But the area of disagreement between 'local authorities' is tiny and trivial — national variants such as traveler and traveller or localized variants such as -ise and -ize.

      There's some disagreement on non-possessive apostrophes. Spellings such as 1950's and CD's are not tolerated is some style sheets. However, rules for possessive apostrophes have been elaborately codified and the same standard operates at every level. The rules are taught in schools. Everybody has been exposed to them. Most children understand them at the time. It's just that they're supremely forgettable, and that so many people see no point in re-learning them.

      If a Global English Academy were imposed on us tomorrow, it would make little or no difference. People would still forget the Academy rules and would still decline to relearn them. People like me would take a perverse delight in flouting the Academy rules. If I were still an English language teacher, I would encourage my students to ignore the Academy rules — except in certain highly formal contexts. Exactly like wearing a tie or not.

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  2. I agree. Will you now set an example, John, by making the appropriate change to the name of your blog?

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    1. No! I said "If we officially...". If and when that happens, I will.

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    2. But who are "we officially"? In the absence of an Académie Anglaise, it's up to you, me, and every teacher, publisher and county council to come to some consensus.

      The problem is that we already have a broad consensus, even if it's one that many people are either confused by or unhappy with. So whose approval should one seek before deciding to change one's own spelling habits?

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    3. You have put your finger on a very important point. In Spain, where I live, there is an Academy which sets rules. They are sometimes controversial but are accepted. And far from ossifying the language as is often claimed, an Academy can be a force for establishing new guidelines as the language changes.

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    4. Imagine the horror and enunciatory ambiguity of Wellses.

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    5. @JMR: A good point. It's not at all clear how we're to pronounce John Wells' phonetic blog - is it wɛlz or ˈwɛlzız?

      But either John Wells phonetic blog or John Wellses phonetic blog would be grammatically acceptable (assuming we're happy with the spelling, and assuming either pronunciation is permitted) and would indicate the author's intended pronunciation perfectly.

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    6.  Pete wrote:
       “It's not at all clear how we're to pronounce John Wells' phonetic blog - is it wɛlz or ˈwɛlzız?”

       Are you serious? John’s name is Wells, not Well, and Wells’ is ˈwelzız or ˈwelzəz. Anything else is not standard English on either side of the pond.

       Charlie Ruland

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    7. Quite the opposite. You may choose to use Wells's or Wells', but the latter is monosyllabic.

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    8. IMHO a spelling pronunciation.

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    9. Ah. (Your "are you serious" and "anything else is not standard" didn't sound exceedingly H.)

      I'm not sure if your opinion refers to this case only (Wells') or to possessives of words ending in sibilants with a written apostrophe only in general. In other words, do you compare Jesussis and Confuciussis ideas, for goodnessis sake, and claim anything else is non-standard?

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    10. A pronunciation spelling, I would say. IMHO, the only reason for ever writing —s’ when —s’s would be logical is on grounds of euphony, i.e. a feeling on the part of the author that a pronunciation with -sɪz or -zɪz sounds ugly. Burchfield’s version of Fowler advocates —s’ only (a) in ancient classical names and (b) when the last syllable of the name is pronounced -ɪz. Hence, John Wells’s Blog, not John Wells’ Blog. I’ve read elsewhere that Jesus’ is pronounced as if written Jesu’s.

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    11. Sorry for my lack of humbleness.

      Your examples were quite convincing, although none of them usually takes a plural form either, as is frequent with surnames. But I guess you’re right and I overshot the mark, simply because I would always try to resolve any doubt about the name by adding an extra syllable.

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    12. Sorry again, what I wanted to write was:

      ... try to resolve any ambiguity ...

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    13. For the record, I find Wells's (bisyllabic) etc. more natural, too.

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    14. Yes, more natural, no doubt.

      But is either Wells’ or welz a recommendable (‘teachable’) standard possessive form of singular Wells welz?

      Where can I read more about this?

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  3. Might I mention that on 12 November 2008 I wrote:
    "Apostrophes in English are a menace and should be abolished."
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2008/11/apostrophes.html

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  4. I'm with you on this.

    Perhaps the residents of Earl's Court are more likely to write letters to the Times than the residents of Barons Court.

    I thought London Transport might be following local practice in each place. I checked in a Geographia London street atlas from the 1950s and found Earls Court Gardens, Earl's Court Road, Earls Court Square, Baron's Place, Barons Court Road.

    Maybe it all depends on who happens to be in charge of Town Planning when a decision has to be made.

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  5. Had you written "People, even literate ones, get very confused about apostrophes. Lets abolish them.", I might have believed that you were sincere in your belief; but as you instead wrote "... Let's abolish them.", I can only conclude that you are as wedded to their retention as am I, and that this thread is therefore more by way of provocation than a sincerely expressed belief.

    Philip Taylor

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    1. Both where he initially wrote it and in this post that's in the context of talking about possessive apostrophes. Thus there's nothing contradictory about it, since it's not a possessive apostrophe.

      And, if it were, see his comment above at 11:07 in reply to caxton1485.

      Personally, reading that quote without having realized yet the context, I found it a delightful irony.

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    2. I agree, John's argument is against the possessive apostrophe rather than all apostrophes. But his argument for their redundancy includes : "The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can’t hear it in speech.", to which I would add that one can also not hear the apostrophe used to indicate elision, as in "let's". "Let's" ("let us") and "lets" (plural lettings, plural obstructions, plural hindered serves in tennis or table tennis) are aurally indistinguishable, and thus the elisive apostrophe also has no phonetic correlate.

      Philip Taylor

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  6. "... if we officially abolished ..." But there is no body to do the official abolishing so this can never happen unless such a body is established.

    In any case, the apostrophe is a useful way (in writing) to distinguish Lloyds (bank) from Lloyd's (insurance entity).

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  7. John, your link to 7 Dec 2011 doesn't work. And it's not clear that any of the threads stored under 2011 December are relevant.

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    1. It's the BBC phone call one, he forgot to remove the ":

      http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/i-had-phone-call-yesterday-from-bbc.html

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  8. The 1950s Barons Court Road, Earls Court Gardens, Earls Court Square had become Baron's Court Road, Earl's Court Gardens and Earl's Court Square by 1984 (The OS ABC London Atlas). Did the Boroughs alter their nameplates, or was this editorial decisions by the publishers. Nicholson's London Streetfinder (1996) has no apostrophes at all. Presumably an editorial decision. So the revolution's already here, John, everyone's doing their own thing. As Stephen Bryant pointed out, there is no official body overseeing this (unlike national academies and so on in some other countries). The only people you have to obey are the publishers (if you want your ms published) and your schoolteacher (if you want good marks).

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  9. Case closed, the council announced a U-turn.

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  10. Mention of Boots always makes me a little nostalgic for Nottingham where i grew up. There the name everyone remembers is Jesse Boot.

    Some googling reveals that John Boot's original shop was called The British and American Botanic Establishment. When his son Jesse set up a company it was Boot and Company Limited. But for for quite a few years before that, the shop was M & J Boot, Herbalists. (M was his mother Mary, John's widow.)

    Early photos of the Boot and Company shop show the familiar Boots trademark. So presumably people had long been saying Boots and associating it with as many as three members of the Boot family.

    Boot & Company became Boots the Chemist; it was never 'Boot's chemist shop', or even 'Boot's herbal shop' or 'Boots' herbal shop'.There was a time when it would be natural to say I got it from Boots the Chemists. I don't think one would write Boots the Chemist's.

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    1. On another forum, somebody discovered that Boot and Company Limited changed its name to Boot's Pure Drug Company with an apostrophe that wasn't officially removed until 1971.

      However, this selection of historical adverts shows that the company almost always used the spelling Boots Pure Drug Company when communicating with the general public. From the start they used the logo Boots that we still know today. In some of the ads, the words CASH CHEMISTS or the Chemists are superimposed on the logo.

      The title Boots Cash Chemists had a particular resonance for DH Lawrence. In this squib on the endowment of Nottingham University Lawrence writes of cash-chemistry and a new dispensation of knowledge rising from a pile made from his and other people's pennies.

      He uses the spelling Boots — except in one line, which I take to be in slightly mocking contrast to the usual spelling:

      over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter

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  11. The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate. You can’t hear it in speech. Therefore we could perfectly well get along without it in writing.

    I think I'd find that argument more convincing were it not for the fact that we could similarly do without letters in many words that could be removed to give a homophone — e.g. tau(gh)t, tor(e), (s)cent, (k)not, b(u)y, pros(e), so(w), wa(i)ve, w(h)ine, (w)hole, etc... — so why pick on possessive apostrophes? Also the argument could be turned round to say that we shouldn't much care about mispronouncing a word as a heteronym, because we get along fine without a corresponding distinction in writing.

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    1. Now I think of it, I succeeded in getting the Ordnance Survey to change "Miner's Track" to "Miners' Track" in one place. Clearly I'm too picky about distinctions that aren't an issue in speech, and even "Minors Track" ought to do just fine, though maps for Scotland would spared from mynahs tracks.

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  12. Incidentally, I've just found UCL professor wades into St Pancras Coroner's Court apostrophe row.

    (I suspect it was prompted by comments on their previous article, one of them from me, possibly my having missed the preceding comment by the looks of it.)

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  13. The possessive apostrophe has no phonetic correlate.

    It has a perverse correlate if you pronounce Wells's as ˈwɛlzız.

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    1. No, because that's the same as the plural Wellses.

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    2. Apostrophes were invented to show the absence of sounds previously represented by unnecessary letters. The apostrophe in Wells's does the opposite: it supplies a sound previously represented by the absence of a letter. The phonetic correlate is ɪ.

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  14. A few thoughts:

    1) English spelling has more to worry about than the apostroph, posessive or otherwise.

    2) The fact that you cannot tell apart in speech two words or utterances doesn't mean it's a good thing you cannot tell them apart in writing. For one, writing is often more concise and lacks intonation. Secondly, the brain processes reading different from hearing, seemlessly adding the extra information provided by different spelling, lessening the burden on the brain.

    3) Dutch lacks a possesive apostroph*, and uses its genetive, apart from the irregular pronouns, especially with personal names (with other types of words posession is expressed mostly periphrastically). And my purely personal opinion is that it looks weird and confusing to add the "s" directly to the name. I'd be in favour of introducing one in Dutch spelling!

    *An apostroph is used when either the word ends in a vowel, e.g. "Yfke's" or when the word ends with an s, e.g. "Kees'".

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    1. The fact that you cannot tell apart in speech two words or utterances doesn't mean it's a good thing you cannot tell them apart in writing.

      Your two write.

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    2. Killian

      Apostrophes supply information, but they do so in a vey alien manner. The majority of forms — the possessive forms — supply only grammatical information. Apostrophes don't engage the brain like letters; it's more like adding colour coding.

      The problem with both apostrophes and colour coding is that you have to remember what they mean. With don't, I'll etc this is a simple matter of word recognition. But when you see an apostrophe attached to a noun, you have to slow down to interpret it.

      It might not be so bad if we didn't have forms for plural possessives. These are either regular and counterintuitive (boys' etc) or irregular and requiring an effort of memory (men's etc).

      English spelling is complicated by its checkered history. But it's full of regularities within limits, regularities that a reader can recognise. Possessive apostrophes are different. They're not a recognisable part of a word, but a grammatical add-on. And they're not as unambiguous as you suggest: the spelling John's could be the equivalent of of John, John is or John has.

      Reading apostrophes is a minor inconvenience; they just slow you down a little. But writing the wretched things calls for an effort of memory every time. Most of us learn the rules at school with no difficulty. (Well, it's vs its eludes a lot of us.) But then very many of us promptly dismiss them from memory when we leave school.

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    3. You mention boys'. By chance I saw my boys' school in a real-life example just a few minutes ago, from someone I don't know well enough to have otherwise known that it was plural, so this inclines me against discarding this information.

      Clearly empirically many people do get possessive apostrophes wrong, and I'm willing to buy this as an argument for discarding them, though not without counterarguments. However, I struggle to see any one factor responsible for this. The "no phonetic correlate" argument would also apply to many other homophones that people don't generally misspell. Likewise, the "grammatical add-on" argument would also apply to inflections. Maybe we need to combine these, and then also throw into the mix that it's visually more of an add-on (because just the first two would apply for example to many inflections in French, that presumably native speakers tend to get right).

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    4. Oops, I meant "many other homophones, which people don't generally misspell".

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    5. David, you make a number of bold claims, that I'd love to verify. Are there any scientific publications with regards to the "alien manner" in which apostrophes "don't engage the brain like letters"?

      Also, "don't" and "I'll" are no doubt recognized by the brain as a single unit, but the brain still has to split the parts semantically. There's also "you'll", "he'll", "we'll" etc., and I doubt whether the possessive clitic [s] gets a very different treatment from our brain at those early stages of recognition than the future tense clitic [l]. Why would one have to "slow down" for "'s" but not for "'ll"? And why would one not have to slow down if we'd write "s" without an apostroph? Purely from personal experience, I have to "slow down" (if you can call it that) when reading a genetive "s" attached to a personal name in Dutch, possibly because my pattern recognizing brain doesn't expect it there. An apostrophe would help there, I'm convinced (but note I'm not making any scientifical claims, and I'd love for someone to do some rigorous scientific testing on the subject).

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    6. Kilian Hekhuis, how about verification for your claims. The brain has to separate out "don't" semantically. Really? Why. I don't see any reason for that. It's simply a negator.

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    7. Killian

      'll is not a 'future tense clitic'. English doesn't have a future tense, although will often translates the future tense in languages which do have one.

      He'll is an alternative to he will whether it's a FUTURE He'll be here soon or EPISTEMIC conclusion He'll be the odd one out, then.

      'll doesn't normally corresponding to be willing, but we do use it to make a distinction between If you wait here and If you'll wait here.

      n't is not an independent device for expressing NEGATIVE. It can only be used where not is used — and then only after an auxiliary verb form.

      'll and n't convey normal lexical information.
      's and s' convey an entirely different type of information.

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    8. or EPISTEMIC conclusion He'll be the odd one out, then

      I should have added the epistemic with PAST time reference

      He'll have been there yesterday

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    9. @Ellen, you are absolutely right, I was focussing on "ll". "don't" is a very likely a single unit negator, as far as our brains are concerned.

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    10. @David: "'ll is not a 'future tense clitic'." - You're probably right, as it doesn't attach to the verb. My analysis is likely wrong. Until there's a decent scientific study addressing this subject, we'd both better refrain from making bold claims :)


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  15. Alan

    Likewise, the "grammatical add-on" argument would also apply to inflections.

    The fact that so many people get spelling of possessive forms wrong and so few people get the spelling of inflected forms wrong suggests otherwise.

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    1. Inflections are still grammatical add-ons, though, aren't they? So my point was that this is not enough in itself to explain why people get possessive forms wrong, but it also takes the fact that they are differentiated by only a symbol without phonetic correlate that also has the visual appearance of an add-on. (Re the "visual" requirement, I'm thinking of, say, silent endings in third-person plural verb forms in French, that would seem to tick the first two boxes.)

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  16. "At least if we officially abolished possessive apostrophes..."

    John, I'm surprised at you! I would have taken you to be one of the first to point out that we can no more officially abolish possessive apostrophes than we can officially preserve them. English just ain't that kind of language!

    Kevin Flynn

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    1. Hence the irrealis mood, I suppose.

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  17. On the Metro-North, the commuter railroad that serves points north of New York City, consecutive stations are Purdy's, which serves the hamlet of the same name, and Golden's Bridge, which serves the hamlet of Goldens Bridge. ("Hamlet" is a semi-technical term in New York State, meaning a named place that is not an city, town, or incorporated village.)

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    1. So "Purdy's" serves "Purdy's", but "Goldens Bridge" (no apostrophe) is served by "Golden's Bridge" (with apostrophe)?

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