[DWJ] 'that damned hook'?

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sat Apr 14 13:29:55 EDT 2007

>>> I can't imagine how you can live without being
>>> able to tell whether 'your books' refers to one or many possessors.

>> I'm not sure why 'your books' should be thought to be a
>> problem: one must presume that the reader or readers will know whether he
>> or she or it or they is or are singular or plural, surely?  Second person
>> writing carries that with it as a given.

>My point is that because we don't have a writing convention that
>distinguishes in that case, people don't appear to get very upset at the
>ambiguity - indeed, don't normally notice it is there. >

Whereas I was asserting (a strong word!) that there isn't any [perception
of] ambiguity, since the audience is aware of its own nature as either
singular or plural.  The *author* may not know how many people are reading
the words, but that is the author's problem, not that of the reader or
readers.  (How many people is Mick Jagger addressing when he sings "Hey,
you, get off of my cloud"?)

>I claim that
>actual, significant ambiguity in 'the girls books' is vanishingly rare,
>and it is only the damned hook that prompts people to make a fuss - and,
>further, that nine times out of ten (at a conservative estimate) their
>response is not 'huh?' but 'that's wrong' - which indicates that it was
>certainly not ambiguous because they knew perfectly well what it meant.

Whatever the intended meaning, the phrase "the girls books" would
conventionally require an apostrophe either before or after the first 's'
to clarify whether one girl or many was intended, and could not be accurate
without one, so it *is* plain-and-simple wrong within the conventions, as
well as ambiguous without them.  The reaction "that's wrong" would
therefore be entirely reasonable; it might then be followed by "so which
*does* it mean?", if the reader could be bothered to try to crack the
writer's coded utterance.  The reader might of course simply not bother, or
not care any more.  Or, ObDWJ, have lost the will to live. :-(  (That's a
phrase she uses mostly about her reaction to the behaviour of her computer,
but which she might equally apply to opaque prose.)

I know that some people do write without one or another punctuation mark,
or without the use of the letter e, or whatever other idiosyncratic wossits
they choose, but I sincerely doubt that this makes their work easier to
read or to understand, and if one doesn't want to be read or understood
what's the point of writing?  Alternatively, if such people are writing
only for those who are prepared to spend time and effort in cracking their
personal code, for a self-selected in-group who "understand", for the
"interior people", aren't they being rather *more* "snooty" and elitist
than those who are prepared to write for the general mass of people who
find conformity with what is ordinarily conventional easier to understand?

I am quite prepared to read Shaw in spite of his insistance on "shant"
instead of "shan't"; I am equally prepared to read Lewis Carroll in spite
of his spelling it "sha'n't".  I don't feel that either of them is entitled
to dictate to me about the matter when a conventional spelling has been
agreed during the half-century or century since he died.  I'd probably be
more inclined to sympathise with Carroll, because he is at least being
consistant and putting in an apostrophe for each syncopation, and because
his spelling does at least mean that the pronunciation is clear -- in the
case of "shant" it looks like a truncated shanty and tempts one to say it
that way.

It seems from this (I'm working it out as I go along) that I would claim
that if it is possible to avoid ambiguity by using a simple convention of
writing, then that's the way to go.  There are enough instances in which if
an apostrophe is omitted the reader may be brought to a stop, and have to
go back and work out what is intended, for me to feel that it's a
convention worth keeping.  Cant/can't, won't/wont, he'll/hell, are obvious
examples of what one might call simply "different spelling" -- and it is
clearly useful to differentiate spelling for things that are different,
even if it doesn't always happen in English: see the word "pink" and its
multiple meanings as a confusion-example.  I can't see why one should go
out of one's way to confound confusion further.

[snip my deliberately inflammatory para]

>No, I've waged war on the thing long before I read Ms Truss.

But why?  I mean, what's the point?  What is so wrong with having a
punctuation mark that makes things clearer?  Are you going into battle on
behalf of people who don't use it -- can't use it, perhaps -- and for whom
you feel entitled to speak?  (Those who don't want to use it simply
don't[1], in my experience, and it's up to me whether I want to be bothered
with their writing, after all.  I have never been approached by anyone who
doesn't understand the apostrophe and wants it banned; I have been asked to
explain how it works, but that's a different matter.)  It's obvious that
you perfectly understand its use, so your objection to it can't be that you
find it impossible yourself.  It's clearly something you feel strongly
about -- your passionate response to my post about it made that plain --
but I can't for the life of me understand why one would wish to proscribe
something that is valued by many, found helpful by many, and does no harm
to most.  I am quite serious in wondering this, because it seems to me to
be a *strange* cause to espouse.  You use words such as "damned" and
"otiose" about the apostrophe, as if it had done you an injury, and I
really don't see how anyone is injured by a punctuation mark!  Is it that
you find people who correct its misuse insufferable, and want to get rid of
their pedantry by getting rid of its cause?  That might be considered an
untenable position, because in order to get rid of pedantry about the use
of language you would have to get rid of language altogether, it seems to
me.  Today the apostrophe, tomorrow the word...

>Indeed, I
>put off reading her book for several months, because I expected to get
>annoyed with it; but when I did, I found that once she got past her
>infatuation with the otiose little creature it was quite a reasonable book.

It seemed from the title that it might have been the comma that was her
first concern; my thinking was that you must have looked into it far enough
to work out that she was in favour of something you deplore.

>Incidentally, have you read David Crystal's "The Battle for English: How
>the Pundits Ate, Shot and Left". Highly recommended.

Haven't encountered it; if I do I'll try to remember that it came
recommended.  The use of "pundits" in the title would otherwise tend to
make me avoid it, because obvious boo-words like that, combined with a
snipe at a previous author's title, do tend to be a negative indicator for

>Oo. Sorry miss. That naughty Minnow keeps poking me back, so I have to
>show her what's what, don't I miss?

I wasn't poking your back, I was poking your *nose*.


[1] apart from the likes of Shaw and Stein, who make a song and dance about
their punctuation or lack of it and go on and on like a drunk in a bar on
the subject of how daring or original or common-sensible they are being and
what fools or ignoramuses other writers who do not follow their example are
shown to be thereby.  Fie.

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