The perks of apostrophes

May 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Posted in language | 10 Comments
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This ad has been doing the rounds this morning, to the sound of garments being rent all over twitter.

dorothy perkins apostrophes

I got a bit excited, though. As a linguist, I was trained to assume that language behaviour is motivated. By this, I mean linguists assume people who know and use a language have (largely unconscious) reasons for speaking or writing in particular ways. I’m not saying no-one ever makes a mistake in writing or speaking; I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t immediately write off everything that looks ‘wrong’ as an error, but instead think about why someone might have made that language choice, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time.

Writing is particularly interesting, because it’s easy to spot ‘mistakes’ and chastise people for ‘incorrectness’. The Rules are written down in dictionaries, style guides and grammar books. But writing isn’t simply about adhering to a set of (often arbitrary*) grammatical rules. While people delight in sharing this kind of thing…

… there are examples where the ‘correct’ written language can seem ambiguous or unclear. This is what I think is going on in the Dorothy Perkins ad. (More on this in a minute.)

So, you know the rule about plural formation, right? No apostrophes in plurals. Simple. Except even style guides give some exceptions, including plurals of some foreign words (folio’s), numbers (100’s) and letters (mind your p’s and q’s, the three R’s). Why the exceptions? I’d suggest it’s for clarity. The plural of folio is probably to suggest the correct pronunciation (foh-lee-ohz, not foh-lee-oss), while the others are probably to make sure readers interpret what’s written correctly (p’s versus P.S., 100’s versus 100 seconds…?).

Clarity. I saw a sign advertising coffees and tea’s. Why the apostrophe in tea’s only? Possibly because the writer unconsciously worried that teas might be misread (or misunderstood) as tease. (Yes, yes, I know this sounds nuts. I know the plural of pea is peas. Bear with me.)

I think there are several possible motivations for what’s going on in the DP ad.

  1. Making sure people read words correctly. If the plural of maxi is written as maxis, how do you stop people from reading it as ‘max-iss’ (and failing to understand it)? The writer is trying to be clear.
  2. Distinguishing one sense (meaning) of a word from another. Yes, the plural of pencil is pencils, not pencil’s. But DP doesn’t sell pencils you write with; it sells pencil skirts. Minis – they’re cars, aren’t they? The writer forms the plural with an apostrophe to make sure that the reader understands that the word is being used in a different sense, and that DP hasn’t suddenly branched out into selling automobiles and stationery. Again, it’s about clarity. (Note that dresses and savings are pluralised without apostrophes, as these words are used in their primary (normal) sense.)
  3. Maxi’s, mini’s, pencil’s and skater’s are actually abbreviations of noun phrases: maxi dresses, mini dresses… So the apostrophe indicates something missing (which is, incidentally, a well-established use of apostrophes that is drummed into EVERYONE at school. Why not extend this to mean more than just a letter or two being omitted?).

In fact, it’s possible to see this as linguistic innovation, rather than fall-of-the-Empire type lassitude. In my first year at university, we were told to keep an eye out for this kind of stuff, as it might indicate ‘a linguistic change in progress’. So, in a couple of hundred years, when apostrophes are routinely used to distinguish one meaning of a word from another and style guides have whole sections on when to use pencils and when to use pencil’s, you’ll put aside your harp, look down from the clouds, remember this blogpost and smile.

P.S. Yes, yes. I know hundred’s shouldn’t have an apostrophe. I can’t explain that one. Sorry.

P.P.S. I’m not saying these choices are made on purpose – just that they are made for a reason, even if the writer her-/himself isn’t aware of that reason.

P.P.P.S. I should say that I am in no way arguing that this use of apostrophes is beautiful, stylish, or shouldn’t make you want to shave your head, climb a lamppost and start picking people off with a crossbow. I’m just saying it’s interesting.

* For a lovely, cogent, witty explanation of the arbitrariness of grammatical ‘rules’, see The Stroppy Editor.

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