Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Apostrophes, language change, and "correctness"

I just found an example of apostrophe usage that I'd like to point out to the world:
Starbucks's plan for global growth has stalled and may never be realized...
(From a Washington Post article titled "4 Captivating Companies and What They Share" that Cindy pointed me to.)

Even though "Starbucks" ends in an "s", since it is a singular noun, the authors still add an "s" after the apostrophe to make it possessive, just like "James's". This is the style preferred by most style guides (and by myself), but the acceptable way to form the possessive of a singular noun that ends in "s" is slowly changing: some modern writers accept a single apostrophe, without a subsequent "s" (e.g. "Starbucks'" or "James'").

If you want more details on this rule, Purdue has a nice summary of apostrophe usage, and Wikipedia has a whole section on forming the possessive of singular nouns that end in "s". Or if you just want to laugh, check Bob the Angry Flower's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots.

Language Change

There is a more general principle that underlies this example: language changes all the time, and so does the idea of "correctness" in language. In fact, most linguists would say—and I would agree—that there isn't really a "correct" (or "incorrect") way to speak or write. Rather, there are ways to speak that are acceptable (or "prestigious", in the parlance of linguists) among certain groups of people. For example, if I spoke like a poor rural Southerner while giving a presentation at Oxford, people might have a hard time taking me seriously. On the other hand, if I spoke like a Londoner while eating at a small town diner in the South, the waitress would probably think I was stuck up (or at least "citified", as one rural Texan I met referred to it). If I spoke that way to some inner-city gang members, I might get shot.

The point is that there is no absolute definition of linguistic "correctness", only social acceptability within a certain group. In fact, the idea of fundamentally "correct" language is almost laughable, since language changes so frequently, and since some rules are literally invented out of thin air.

Other silly rules

As a final example, let's look at a couple of ridiculous rules that most kids learn in school:
  • You shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition (e.g. write "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put" instead of "This is the kind of nonsense that I will not put up with"). This rule was invented, apparently out of thin air, by Robert Lowth, an 18th-century bishop who published an influential grammar book that argued that English grammar should be like Latin grammar. Somehow, his bad advice caught on, and has been making English sound awkward for over two centuries. Kingsley Amos calls this rule "one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs", so the next time someone "corrects" you for violating this rule, feel free to call them names.
  • You shouldn't split an infinitive (e.g. write "To go boldly where no man..." instead of "To boldly go where no man..."). Guess where this one came from? Latin, again via Lowth. In Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive, since the infinitive is a single word (like in Spanish). Lowth decided that since Latin was the "pure" language, and you couldn't split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn't be allowed to in English, either. Languages arts teachers across the globe now drill this wacky rule into their unsuspecting students' heads.
So, the moral of the story is to not believe everything that your grammar teacher tells you. And the other moral is that if this stuff interests you, you should take an introductory linguistics class (like Ling 330 or ELang 223 at BYU) and a class on language change (like Ling 450). They'll change how you think about the world.

(This post brought to you by the legislative division of the department of superfluous verbiage, and the letter "K".)

[Bonus for grammar nerds: forming the possessive of plurals of words that end in "s" is even more fun than forming the possessive of singular words that end in "s". For example, let's say that we know a family with the last name of "Jones", and let's say that we want to talk about all of the members of the Jones family: we would be talking about the Joneses. (Rule: to form the plural of a word that ends in "s", add "es".) Now, let's say that we want to talk about something that belongs to the Joneses, like their house: we would call it the "Joneses' house". (Rule: add a single apostrophe, without an "s" to form the possessive of a plural.)]


jacob said...

Prepositions at the ends of sentences can often indicate other grammar problems. For example, my cell phone company used to use the slogan, "Where you at?"

Their slogan is missing a verb, because it was combined or implied with "where."

Seeing as "Where are you," is an equally concise phrase, the use of the phrase, "where you at," should be strongly discouraged. The same principle may also apply to other sentences that end with propositions.

I suspect that you are feeling somewhat more sensitive to poor grammar because your celebrity of I.T. company, Apple, decided to use the slogan "funnest iPod ever" in recent advertising, even though most modern dictionaries do not recognize "funnest" as a word.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, Latin also abandoned the use of the letter "K", so the fact that it is sponsoring your post says something about your own aversion to Latin. Or not.

Kristy said...

I feel like I was watching seseme street. I think that you choose a good letter for this to be brought by. Umm. I only understood half of what this said.
When I have a class, do you want to teach them how to write and be smart?

Jonathan said...

I always feel smarter after reading your blog Bruce. How do you do it? haha.