Introducing the apostrophantom

In previous posts I have mentioned the apostrofly, described in the Guardian style book as “an insect that lands at random on the printed page, depositing an apostrophe wherever it lands”. It looks like this. What then do we make of an entity that absconds from the printed page, leaving only a ghostly trace of the apostrophe it once was?

Here is an image from Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns:

Stan Carey - apostrophantom in Batman - The Dark Knight Returns

Close examination of the word its in the first thought bubble will show you what I mean: there is visible, if only just, a faint smudge in a space that formerly accommodated an errant apostrophe. Someone spotted this apostrophe and dealt with it, presumably with a ruthless efficiency of the sort Batman employs to put evildoers out of action.

That apostrophe, once spotted, never stood a chance, but in its wake there remains an indelible mark testifying to its former corporeality. It is no longer an apostrophe, but it is evidently not nothing; I call this mark the apostrophantom.

This blend describes what it denotes, and also serves to honour the much-maligned genre (superhero comics) that inspired it. Compared with the apostrofly, the apostrophantom is an elusive creature, a rare typographical spectre. And now we have evidence of its existence.

(By the way, if Batman’s internal monologue disturbs you, you wouldn’t be the only one. But his relationship with Robin (aka Carrie) was chaste, and the writer knew what he was doing.)

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13 Responses to Introducing the apostrophantom

  1. “presumably with a ruthless efficiency of the sort Batman employs to put evildoers out of action”
    You’ve just put in my head an image of the Joker putting all kinds of unnecessary apostrophes into books, then taunting the general public about it and driving Batman into a Tippex-wielding storm of correction. A Dark Knight for proofreaders, perhaps…

  2. Stan says:

    Doubtful: That sounds highly entertaining! Yes, it would be “a Dark Knight for proofreaders”: Batman Begins but never finishes because there are just too many typos, more and more of them inspired by sheer malevolence. And it’s only a matter of time before the Joker joins forces with The Riddler and his quarry of question marks to unleash a maelstrom of out-of-control punctuation marks. Batman will need a new and tireless sidekick – Lynne Truss, perhaps.

  3. Andrew says:

    apostrofly and apostrophantom are both great portmanteaus :-P

  4. Stan says:

    Thanks Andrew. Although it has been almost seven years since Ian Mayes introduced the apostrofly (“like an insect […] over the dining table, alighting where it will”), I have yet to encounter a better explanation of certain apostrophe-related phenomena. Given the apostrophantom’s scarcity I don’t expect the term to enter any dictionaries any time soon, but at least now it has a modest profile on Wordnik!

  5. Terrified says:

    These terrifying smudges leave the reader wondering what the righter really meant.

  6. Stan says:

    Terrified: I suppose the writer meant its but confused it with it’s. Many do. The mark’s rather muddled history [PDF, 139 KB] probably contributes to the confusion — as does the confusion itself, since it seems to be contagious.

  7. Don Lee says:

    Quebec, Canada must be the world capital of the astrophantom. By the early ’80s the provincial government had required the suppression of all apostrophes in business names to ensure the “French face” of commercial life here. We suspect that somewhere in Quebec there may now be a warehouse full of discarded apostrophes.

  8. Stan says:

    Don: Governmental suppression of apostrophes? Their existence is even more contentious than I thought, and that of apostrophantoms perhaps more prevalent! Imagine the havoc if that warehouse’s contents fell into the wrong hands…

    Your story reminds me of the Irish government’s controversial decision a few years ago to change the name of Dingle to An Daıngean. Luckily no apostrophes were involved in this case.

  9. Joe Clark says:

    No, this is plain old Borked Unicode. The apostrophe was misencoded and/or the half-assed font used simply did not include a character at that position.

    Bravo for spinning this into 450 words, though.

  10. Stan says:

    That sounds like a plausible explanation, Joe — if Unicode was used. But in the space there appears to be a faint, apostrophe-shaped mark, not a blank gap.

  11. thoapsl says:

    Yeah, I doubt this was a Unicode issue – The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, before Unicode existed, and I’m pretty sure it was lettered by hand (i.e. all text was hand-drawn in ink, which was the case for almost all comics in those days). The errant apostrophe was probably noticed at a late stage of production and just painted over, hence the faint apostrophantom mark …

  12. Stan says:

    Thanks, thoapsl. That makes sense. I should’ve compared the dates, but I got sidetracked. More apostrophantoms, meanwhile, have been reported in a comment at this recent post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

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