Author: William

Sticks and stones by any other name

Did Juliet get it wrong? How do you order a coffee?

Pondering the significance of the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues on her love for Romeo, Shakespeare’s Juliet tells herself that the relationship between a name and the thing that it names is arbitrary – his family name is immaterial; a person is distinct from what they’re called. She says this rather more poetically than I have, in the well-known lines:


‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.’


Many people would disagree, based on their experience or knowledge of familial, tribal, political, religious, national, sexual, ethnic, footballing (and so on) feuds and prejudices. Maybe Juliet didn’t really believe it herself and was doing what we all do some of the time, arguing for what she wished rather than what she knew to be true. Certainly, in the play of Romeo and Juliet, she was wrong – both she and Romeo die because of their family names. And in real life, name-calling is the most common form of bullying amongst children and young people (see, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission research report on identity-based bullying).


These are extreme, if not uncommon, examples but they do illustrate the power of language to play on our emotions – even about what we would surely agree in our more rational moments are fairly trivial matters. In response to an article about why Americanisms entering British English cause irritation, for example, thousands of people emailed the BBC News Magazine about their own particular irritants. Here is a flavour of the instances individuals emailed about:


  • people [in coffee shops I assume] asking, ‘Can I get a…’
  • references to ‘the least worst option’
  • ‘take-outs’ instead of ‘takeaways’
  • saying ‘I’m good’ rather than ‘I’m well’
  • transforming nouns into verbs by adding ‘ize’ at the end – eg burglarize
  • ‘going forward’ instead of… [Well, I’m not sure what it’s instead of.]
  •  ‘for free’ instead of plain ‘free’.


However, it wasn’t the examples that interested me as much as the emotional intensity they generated as illustrated by the words the emailers used to describe their feelings:


  • ‘My pulse rises…’
  • ‘It makes me cringe no end.’
  • ‘The word I hate to hear is…’
  • ‘It makes me shudder.’
  •  ‘…really irritates me.’
  • ‘My worst horror is…’
  • ‘Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance.’


It may be that these people have such dull lives that they depend on minor linguistic imports to set their hearts racing. But I doubt it, though I don’t have the scientific evidence. I think that emotional responses to aspects of language run much deeper.


It is not only words and phrases; it’s accents too. Given our distance from the social world portrayed in Downton Abbey, you might expect that social judgements based on people’s accents would have all but disappeared. Not so, it seems. An article in the Birmingham Mail, for example, shows the persistence of the long-standing low esteem people from elsewhere in the UK have for the Birmingham accent. Reporting on the development of a sat nav system by Mio that gives directions in local accents as you drive through the country, the article refers to a survey conducted by Tom Tom, which found that ‘the Brummie accent is one of the most disliked in the country’, drivers preferring to be given their instructions in an upper-class accent of the Joanna Lumley variety.  The Dialect Blog refers to some of the adjectives British people use to describe the Birmingham accent: ‘loutish’, ‘thuggish’ and ‘thievish’. The American author of the piece is puzzled, hearing the accent as ‘one of England’s many unusual dialect pockets, with nothing more or less offensive than any other type of regional speech.’


And that’s the point: there is nothing intrinsically criminal about the Birmingham accent, any more than there is something inherently hateful in the name of Montague. It’s more that our associations with particular words and accents arouse our passions and preconceptions. Language is loaded with emotion, even when we don’t intend it to be.


The thin edge of the wedge for me was Jill Archer, taken out to tea by her daughter Elizabeth in a recent episode of The Archers, when she said that the cakes were ‘to die for’. I haven’t been able to find the origin of the expression but it surely comes most recently from the USA and, I am almost certain, derives from the grammar of Yiddish and is probably completely unrelated to the Yiddish proverb ‘If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.’ I like the expression. But in Ambridge?


There’s a lot more to be said about the serious side of the emotional aspects of language. Another time. For now, I’m off to dinnerize with my buddies.

The apostrophe’s last stand?

Does this ill-used, maligned punctuation mark stand a chance? Does it deserve to?

Of all the things to exercise the human race, the use of the apostrophe must surely come low down the list. And yet… the language used to describe reactions to its use, its misuse, and its non-use suggest otherwise.


An article in The Telegraph for example, back in 2009, reported Birmingham City Council’s decision to dispense with the apostrophe in signs for place names – on the grounds that it would create greater consistency and avoid costs and confusion. The costs, it seems, were caused by ‘time-consuming queries from local pedants’ (this was the expression used in the article), and the confusion by deciding when to use this troublesome punctuation mark. The article referred to the reaction of John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society who, as might be expected, regarded the decision as ‘absolute defeatism’ and a blow to teachers ‘trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation.’ Children would now, he claimed, ‘go around Birmingham and see utter chaos.’ This was, of course, before the riots of August 2011. A spokesman for Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, said that she would be ‘heartbroken’ to learn of the council’s decision.


If Birmingham City Council’s decision set hearts breaking, I imagine Kill the Apostrophe might have caused some fatalities. The argument is that the apostrophe serves ‘only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.’ Microsoft Word has just inserted the apostrophe in ‘dont’ in this piece of writing and I have had to go back to delete it as the case for killing the apostrophe is written entirely without apostrophes. I have to admit that their absence does not make the article any less difficult to read or understand and the arguments are, on the whole, persuasive.


Implicit in the arguments for the preservation of the apostrophe are two lines of reasoning that are difficult to support. One is that standards are falling – there once was a golden age when everyone was taught how to write ‘correctly’ and did so; the other is that language is fixed – there is ‘correct grammar and punctuation’. The first is just plain wrong: there never was a golden age – for punctuation or anything else. The other is mistaken – language and the use of language develops and changes all the time. If that wasn’t the case then there would, for example, be no need to produce new versions of dictionaries and l’Académie française would not have fought a losing battle to preserve the French language.


Interesting that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, revised 3rd edition, 1998) takes a far less emotional approach than either the preservationists or the abolitionists. It outlines the introduction of the apostrophe in the 16th century to denote the omission of a letter or letters, the singular possessive towards the end of the 17th century and the plural possessive a century later, and refers to ‘gross disturbances’ since then, concluding that ‘such instability suggests that further disturbances may be expected in the 21st century.’


One of the examples of change in Fowler’s Modern English Usage is the abandonment of the apostrophe by many businesses, including Barclays, Citizens Advice and Mothers Pride. But visit the Mothers Pride website and you find that the company might have dispensed with the apostrophe in their name but are unsure about what to do with it elsewhere. In describing their history, they refer to the ‘1970s’ but a little later to the ‘1960’s and 1970’s’. This could be hedging their bets but more likely it’s about ignoring the importance of consistency. In fact, neither use is wrong but, as Fowler gently advises: ‘the apostrophe is now best omitted in such circumstances.’


This demonstrates one of the weaknesses of the preservationists’ arguments – that is, they believe that the rules are uncomplicated. Take a look at Fowler or at the informative article on Wikipedia about apostrophes and you will see that this is not the case. If you also look at the Plain English Campaign’s guidance you will see that, as Devon County Council states a little naively in its admirable  Plain English Guide ‘the rules for using apostrophes are surprisingly simple.’ Then take a trip over to the Plain English Campaign’s article Protect your livelihood with plain language and you find this:

‘Even in our daily routine lives, when peoples’ incomes are being eroded by economic recession…’

Well, we all make mistakes but this does tend to support the Kill the Apostrophe argument that misuse or absence of the apostrophe rarely gets in the way of meaning and that the heat generated is more about snobbery than understanding.


For all this, I wouldn’t want to abandon the apostrophe. Do we get rid of everything that is problematic in language? Not content with sending the apostrophe to Coventry, Kill the Apostrophe begins to stray into other areas of language to propose changes to spelling (plural z) to compensate for possible confusion resulting from the demise of the apostrophe. And this is where angels should fear to tread. You tamper with one aspect of language and all kinds of unintended consequences follow. Better that language should evolve, as it will do anyway whatever we try to impose, and undergo the gross disturbances referred to earlier.


They will come principally from the way we use online technologies. For some of the sanest debate, have a look at the blogs at I-COM about search engine optimization (SEO) and apostrophes. Even the Apostrophe Protection Society may approve.