Feb 14, 2013

A Hot Potato

written by Jeanette Koenig

Years ago a politician got into hot water for spelling “potato” as “potatoe.” The source of his confusion would have been obvious at the time, but perhaps not so obvious now. His spelling was probably back-formed from the plural “potatoes”—a mistake much less likely to occur these days, with the increasing misuse of apostrophes to form plurals (“*potato’s”). [Throughout this blog, I will use the asterisk (*) to show a form that is non-standard or incorrect.]

I’ve written in the past about how grammar mistakes are not really mistakes. They indicate conflict between a person’s innate grammar and the standard grammar, or perhaps evidence of a language change in process where one form is being reanalyzed into another. But, linguistically speaking, writing is not a part of grammar. It is a convention that imperfectly reflects language and its rules; it is not something hard-wired in the brain. While it is believed that language itself has existed for as long as humans have, writing is an invention. We know of no groups of people today who have no spoken languages, but there are plenty of groups in the world that have no writing system. A person who failed to learn his first language in his early years of life would face a severe handicap, but someone who failed to learn to read or write can still be very successful.

So if writing is a convention, why is it so difficult for people to form plurals correctly? Isn’t it a simple matter of learning conventional rules and then applying them? Or perhaps these misplaced apostrophes are showing something going on in the lexicon—the part of the grammar that governs how words are formed. Convention is determined by usage, and usage can tell us a lot about what people are thinking subconsciously. Much as they bug me, misplaced apostrophes, given some study, might tell us something about the organization of the lexicon in the speaker’s mind. In the meantime, here are a few observations.

Part of the problem of misplaced apostrophes comes from irregular spellings of plurals, which people find difficult to keep track of. Generally, when a word ends in “o,” the plural is formed by adding an “e” and then the “s.” So the plural of “potato” is “potatoes.” The reason for the “e” is to show that the “o” in the last syllable is long. Without the “e,” we would have “*potatos,” which looks like it should be pronounced [po-tay-tahz]. Or perhaps, by analogy with the word “to,” it might be pronounced [po-tay-tooz]. So we insert the “e” to make the pronunciation clear, and that works just fine, if we neglect the fact that the plural of solo, auto, pro, and many others is formed with just the “s”: solos, autos, pros. This confusion about whether or not to insert an “e” and what the pronunciation looks like if you don’t is just begging for some sort of marker to be inserted to show that the “s” is not enough a part of the word to affect its pronunciation. And technically, the plural form “*potato’s” is correct, given the fact that another use of the apostrophe is to show missing letters—in this case, the “e.”

Then there is the complication of plurals for acronyms and numbers. The rule here, which most people ignore, is that you just add the “s” with no apostrophe: “ATMs” and “1920s.” Again, it seems what is happening is that there is a need to separate the “s” from the rest of the word. In the case of numbers, it is as if people are trying to say that you cannot combine numerals and digits into a single “word” (even though we do this all the time with ordinals: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.)

With acronyms and initialisms (the same thing as an acronym, except that it doesn’t form a pronounceable word), the “s” can be mistaken for part of the acronym, especially in situations where everything is in upper or lower case—for instance, a sign written in all upper case letters. When writing informally, I tend to write “CD” (for “compact disk”) in lower case. (I’m not sure why I do this, other than that I’m using the word as a common noun. Or perhaps I’m just too lazy to hit the shift key.) So in an e-mail to a friend, I’m tempted to write “I got some new cd’s today.” The apostrophe is essential to show that the “s” is not part of the initialism.

Certain compound words also pose difficulty for plurals. A doctor’s office that I drive past wants to show that they accept walk-in patients, but the sign is limited in space. It says simply, “Walk-in’s welcome.” I suppose technically this is correct as well, if you argue that the apostrophe is showing that “patient” constitutes the missing letters. More likely, the person who wrote the sign was trying to eliminate a bracketing ambiguity; what he meant was:

[walk + in] + s,

Not

[walk] +ins

It is interesting that misplaced apostrophes are much more likely to show up in proper names and foreign borrowings—words that have not been fully accepted into the lexicon, or, put another way, the same words that are less likely to have their plural form listed in the spell-check dictionary of a word processor. For example, the spell-check doesn’t flag my surname in the singular, but it does in the plural. My sister-in-law’s Christmas letter, which said “Merry Christmas from the Koenig’s” might very well have been not to annoy me, but rather, to get rid of the irritating squiggly red line that would have appeared under “Koenigs.”

In most cases, what seems to be going on with misplaced apostrophes is the need to show some separation from the “s” so as to avoid ambiguities either with pronunciation or the word boundary. It also occurs when the word is not fully incorporated into the lexicon—that is, it doesn’t completely accept all of the possible endings that might be applied to it. In all of these cases, the writer seems not to have accepted the “s” as part of the word. (Note that we don’t do this with other endings, such as “ed,” “ing.”)

Over the last several years, however, misplaced apostrophes have spread from genuinely confusing or ambiguous forms to perfectly ordinary, regular plurals. Now they are spreading to verbs: “He *live’s in Vermont.” Here, I’ve run out of excuses for the perpetrators. The apostrophe has shifted from doing extra duty as a kind of separation mark to just being along for the ride. If anyone wants to take a stab at what the apostrophe is signifying about changes in the grammar, they are welcome to it. I, meanwhile, am going to scream for a little while and then pull out my hair.

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