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Dear all,

It is the start of a new school year, and between my attempts to establish residency (I love the state of California and wish to make it my permanent home, in case any of the people in charge of residency read this blog), to learn to teach, and to understand Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods and other things involving more math than I’ve seen since I finished my undergrad thesis, I have had precious little time to spend on issues of grammar. So I apologize, but for the next few months my posting rate will be notably smaller. This should already have been evident by the delay between installments V and VI in Preposterous Apostrophes. And heck, now I’m out of apostrophe-related issues to talk about.

This is where you come in, dear readers. At the end of the day, I sometimes have the energy to write about grammar but not the energy to come up with a topic to write about. Thus I am soliciting suggestions for topics you’d like to see discussed and questions you’d like to have answered about grammar or linguistics in general. Any ideas are welcome; just tack them onto the comments for this post or any other, and I’ll try to address them when the mood strikes me. It’s not a hard task I put before you. Everyone has their little grammar peeves. Now you can find out how justified they are! It’ll be loads of fun! I eagerly await.

To hear most people tell it, writing something like I like you’re coat is pretty similar to writing Say what you will about the Fascists, but at least Mussolini got the trains running on time. Namely, it marks you as an idiot with only a rudimentary understanding of the English language (or Italian history in the second sentence). “There are very simple, clear-cut rules about which your/you’re is used where!” cry the grammarians, and I admit that in the past I have cried with them. But if writing the Preposterous Apostrophes series has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is clear-cut when apostrophes are involved. So why do people get so confused between possessive pronouns and contractions (or in the case of they’re/their/there, pronouns, contractions, and locatives)?

I think the problem is best seen in the its/it’s distinction. The former is a possessive pronoun, the latter a contraction. People get awfully riled up about this confusion, but just try to tell me it’s not a reasonable mistake to make. It is singular, it ends in a consonant that sounds nothing like an s, and it’s sure noun-like. Well, nouns that don’t end in s-like sounds always get ‘s to make their possessives, so why shouldn’t it be it’s? The answer is that, due to the vagaries of English, pronouns are not treated like nouns when possessives are formed, silly! Of course, there are situations where it’s would be a proper possessive, because this is English and nothing should be easy about it:

(1) Get Over It‘s lack of commercial success despite Sisqo’s starring role remains a mystery.
(2) The IT’S-IT‘s popularity is limited off the West Coast, but it shouldn’t be.
(3) Cousin Itt‘s hair is the inspiration for my new hairstyle.

Now, in both of these cases, it is a noun, while in its situations, it is a pronoun. One could argue that in these sentences the ‘s is not attaching directly to it (or Itt), but rather to a phrase that ends in it. But I think that in cases where one can refer directly to it as a noun, it’s is far better than its:

(4) Upon seeing the ghost, Mr. Czolgosz shouted, “It… it… it… it’s a ghost!” It‘s repetition in his stammered statement underscored his fear.

(Of course, any reasonable speaker of English not trying to make a middling point about the occasional acceptability of it’s would have said “the repetition of it” in (4).) Anyway, my point is that it is only because it is a pronoun that it’s is not the standard form for the possessive of it. So why does being a pronoun matter? I don’t actually know exactly, but here’s my speculation:

English does not have a particularly extensive case system; a given word is usually written & pronounced the same whether it is the subject or object of a verb (Paolo ate the book vs. the book ate Paolo). In a lot of other languages, such as Estonian, Russian, and German, just to focus on Central and Eastern Europe, noun phrases are written differently depending on what role they perform in the sentence:

(5) Der Tisch gab den Tisch des Tisch(e)s dem Tisch(e)
The table gave the table of the table to the table.

(I cannot guarantee this example is perfect German, as I copied it verbatim from Wikipedia.) In (5), the subject has nominative case and so its article is der, whereas the second table is the direct object and gets accusative case. The other two tables have genitive case (possessive case, as with English ‘s) and dative case (a to-phrase in English), respectively. English does have a little bit of case marking, but it only appears on pronouns (I ate the book vs. The book ate me), and even then it doesn’t appear on all pronouns (It ate you vs. You ate it).

What’s my point with this digression in Germanic morphology? Simple: Possessives are manifestations of genitive case, and pronouns in English manifest case differently from nouns. So it’s not all that surprising that pronouns have different possessive forms than they would if they were nouns. But given that it is the same in nominative and accusative cases, just like a noun, it is a little surprising that it‘s possessive is a special case, especially since its and it’s sound identical. So yes, there is a clear-cut rule that the possessive of the pronoun it is its, but that’s competing with a separate rule saying that ‘s is the possessive marker.

Same thing with your/you’re and their/they’re; if you think of the rule that possessives involve an apostrophe (for there is no possessive of a noun that does not include an apostrophe) before you think of the special rule that pronouns’ possessives do not involve apostrophes, you could easily write you’re or they’re for the possessives. I’m not saying it’s justified, per se. But it is a reasonable error — certainly more reasonable than one would expect given the invective spewed at those who make this mistake.

And, for the history buffs in the audience, let me point out that its is a somewhat recent addition to the language. Its earliest written citation in the OED is 1598, although it was apparently in use colloquially before then. In fact, through the 19th century, it’s and its were in competition to be the possessive form of it, and it looks like it’s was more popular in the 17th century. So it isn’t obvious that its should be the possessive pronoun, or at least it wasn’t at first.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

Contractions are pretty easy, but as I often do, I started looking at something kind of interesting and fell down a rabbit-hole of exciting historical usage studies! I assume you are all withering with glee at the possibility of links to old books that weren’t interesting when they were published. Let’s start by looking at how contractions are punctuated.

It is generally stated without qualification by grammar books that in a contraction, the apostrophe goes where the letter(s) have been removed. That works great for a lot of contractions, such as shouldn’t, wouldn’t, needn’t, oughtn’t, mightn’t, hadn’t, aren’t, I’m, we’ll, you’d, they’ve, it’s, would’ve, should’ve. The rule also works in some non-contraction situations: o’clock, O’Dell, an’ (for and), havin’, etc. But it doesn’t work for some less standard contractions like hafta (not *hav’ta), shoulda (*should’a), wanna (*wann’a), gonna (*go’n’a). And it doesn’t work for two big contractions: won’t (not *wo’n’t) and shan’t (not *sha’n’t).

To be fair, the ignorance of hafta and the like in the grammar rules isn’t surprising since most all grammarians consider these contractions things that shouldn’t be written in English. (Not because they’re too new – I’ve managed to find gonna attested in 1899.) Of course, it does lead to the question of why it’s so clear to native English speakers that wanna doesn’t have an apostrophe. Apostrophes are productive; it’s not that you learn the contractions into which apostrophes go, and never use an apostrophe in other contractions (witness the great Pittsburghian restaurant Eat ‘n Park, with a productive apostrophe on the and contraction). Why no one writes wann’a is unclear to me, but I think most everyone would share the intuition that it would remove a terrific weight from your chest if only that apostrophe weren’t in wann’a. So let’s leave this an unsolved problem for the moment.

The interesting cases are wo’n’t (from woll not, a variant of will not that had some currency back in the day) and sha’n’t (from shall not, as said by me and other putting on airs). These look crazy, right? But why? At first I was thinking it’s some sort of constraint we all share that you oughtn’t have two apostrophes in a single word. That would explain why I eat at Eat ‘n Park (the place for smiles) and not Eat ‘n’ Park. But that’s not quite it; a quick Google search turns up ~500K hits for O’Donnell’s and ~75K for O’Dell’s, so it’s not impossible to have two apostrophes in a word. I’ve definitely seen examples of ‘n’ for and, and in fact the two apostrophes look more natural than one to me.

Did the contractions won’t and shan’t spring into English fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s noggin? No, interestingly. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (printed in 1855), has wo’n’t, as do some (modern) editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and The Ohio Educational Monthly in an article from 1868. Likewise, sha’n’t was commonplace in the old days, plastered across the pages of the dreadful Victorian novels that I had to read in AP English as a lesson as to what happens to those who show an interest in reading. Books like Evelina; or, The history of a young lady’s entrance into the world (why did every single book in those days have to have a subtitle?)

Now the interesting thing is that won’t and shan’t live side-by-side with wo’n’t and sha’n’t in these old books. Some quick results on Google Books between 1600 and 1800: 777 won’ts, 57 wo’n’ts; 216 shan’ts, 73 sha’n’ts. Between 1600 and 1700: 48 won’ts, no wo’n’ts; 1 each of shan’t and sha’n’t. So it seems it was never the case that the multiple-apostrophe form was more common. For some reason or another, English writers have always preferred a single apostrophe over strict application of “put apostrophes wherever a letter’s missing”. (Michael Quinion guesses that the double-apostrophe form was a later edition, suggested by logic-minded grammarians, that died out because it was a pain to write and looked weird.)

This single-apostrophe preference may be to blame for the rarity of double contractions like we’d’ve (which I use), couldn’t’ve (also good), or I’mn’t (which I definitely do not use). In fact, I might as well put in a plug here for double contractions, of which I’m a big fan, but it seems too few people are. Sprinkle some who’d’ves into your writing sometime. It’s superfun; your cheerfulness will increase at least twice as much from a quick double contraction as from an emoticon, I promise. ;) See? The emoticon just can’t compete.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands:

Arnold Zwicky’s got a great post over on Language Log about at about, as in:

(1) I ate a tuna and jellybean sandwich at about 4:15.

Basically, a bunch of prescriptivists have a pet peeve that at about is redundant because you’re “piling up” prepositions. It isn’t at all. First, look at these sentences without one of the prepositions:

(2)a. I ate a tuna and jellybean sandwich at 4:15.
(2)b. I ate a tuna and jellybean sandwich about 4:15.

(2)a does not mean the same thing as (1) – it might be that you had an alarm clock go off at precisely 4:15, flipped through your agenda, and found a note saying “EAT TUNA/JELLYBEAN SWICH”, and pulled one out of the fridge. And (2)b, to me, sounds tremendously colloquial – I would not write this in a paper, although I would without hesitation write (1). The prescriptivists argue that Omit Needless Words kicks in here and thus you’ve got to ditch one of the prepositions, but it’s plain to see that omitting a preposition changes the meaning or tone of the sentence: neither preposition is needless!

Zwicky makes a really important point that needs to be kept in mind by all grammarians: members of the same syntactic category (i.e., prepositions) can have different grammatical functions. With at about, at‘s syntactic function is as an operator, whereas about‘s function is as an adverbial. Piling up prepositions is commonplace (Zwicky cites numerous examples of unquestionably grammatical at about strings); what prescriptivists mean to complain about is piling up words of the same syntactic function, as in:

(3) Unsurprisingly, I ate a another tuna and jellybean around about 4:25.

I intend to remain agnostic about sentence (3); it is possibly better to only use around or about, because they both have an adverbial function, and they both have approximately the same meaning in that function.  The take-home point here is that when you’re trying to argue about language with something like Omit Needless Words, you’ve got to be sure that the words are truly needless, and are needless for a principled reason.  (Even then, ONW will lead you astray – I hope to blog about some new research on this point soon.)  As Zwicky puts it, the prescriptivists’ unstated rule is:

“Follow this advice, unless that would be wrong.”

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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