Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.


Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.


Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.

Who’s confused by whose confusion?

December 17, 2012

The following exchange appears in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape (on p. 208 of my Faber and Faber edition, 2002):

“I don’t have a home,” said Ben Barth.

“Well, who’s fault is that?” said Wa.

Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has (or occasionally who was): Who’s going? Who’s got tickets? Looks who’s talking; whereas whose is a possessive pronoun – it’s who in the genitive case – so it should have been used in the quoted passage: whose fault is that?

Confusion arises because who’s and whose are pronounced identically, and also because the ’s in who’s can mislead people into thinking it has to do with possession: If the cap isn’t Jo‘s or Jim‘s, then who‘s whose is it? (This apostrophe-led impression of possession probably also inspires the erroneous your’s, her’sour’s and their’s.)

Who’s for whose is a common mistake in informal writing, and it sometimes sneaks past editors too. To keep who’s in its rightful place, you can use the same mnemonic I recommended for it’s and its: just as it’s always means it is or it has, so who’s means who is or who has. Bring this to mind any time you’re uncertain, and you shouldn’t slip up.

I liked Girl in Landscape, incidentally; it’s a coming-of-age story in a sci-fi setting with elements of mystery and western. It also has examples of dialectal would of (We should of killed them; you’d of met him), which I wrote about recently. I’m not a fan of the construction, but since I’ve seen it in dialogue from several capable authors, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t say the same for who’s fault.


Another example of the mistake, this time in the Guardian (‘EDM’s shameful secret: dance music singers rarely get paid’, 6 August 2013):

guardian typo - who's whose

And in Seth’s graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

seth - it's a good life, if you don't weaken - whose who's

James Crumley’s novel One to Count Cadence (Picador edition, 1994):


Less commonly, the confusion occurs the other way around, as in this article in the Belfast Telegraph:

belfast telegraph whose who's confusion

And in Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’s biography of Kurt Cobain:

"Hey, whose got all the pot?" yelled Krist.

Inkhorns in the past, apostrophes in the future

February 2, 2012

I have two new posts up on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, The fashion for inkhorn terms, continues the discussion of plain English (the blog’s theme for December and January) and looks at some of the reasons language can fail to achieve its main purpose: communication.

In particular, I look at the once-popular ornate style of writing that

combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English. . . .

In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”. But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English . . .

Read on for examples of inkhorn terms that survived and ones that faded.

Next, Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial changes to a company’s style, and I ponder what the future might hold for this troublesome punctuation mark:

Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation . . . .

We may see a trend towards using [the apostrophe] less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint.

This post prompted some fascinating comments, which you can read here. If you’d like to browse my older posts at Macmillan, you can go straight to the archive.

Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

January 12, 2012

We’ve been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, this time Waterstones, has officially dropped the apostrophe from its name, sparking outrage from self-anointed protectors of the language.

Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said: (PDF)

Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

This seems entirely reasonable to me. The fact that it’s a bookseller, of course, compounds the agony for the is-nothing-sacred crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news websites.

John Richards, of the Apostrophe Protection Society, is predictably unhappy with Waterstones: “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.” If the quote is accurate, his use of slapdash is itself slapdash: the word means hasty or careless, and I’m quite sure Waterstones are being anything but.

Martin MacConnol, in a sensible post about the furore, points out that Waterstones’ name “is a brand mark, and thus doesn’t follow the normal rules of grammar”. David Marsh at the Guardian says it’s “no catastrophe”. But he recommends carrying a felt-tip pen and Tipp-Ex to tackle public lapses in punctuation, à la Lynne Truss, which sounds like a recipe for hypercorrection and Pedantry Gone Wild.

One blogger, whose identity I’ll spare, lamented the news thus:

So now you know: apostrophes that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in genitive itsas if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine Woodward studied in her interesting dissertation “The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation”.

My favourite reaction was from Waterstones of Oxford Street, whose Twitter account posted the photo below (cropped; source unknown), followed by a series of faux-poignant tweets about the apostrophe’s last day at work with the company. “A victim of rebranding”, indeed.

By the standards of common punctuation marks, the apostrophe has had a short existence bedevilled by instability and inconsistency. As Christina Cavella and Robin Kernodle’s paper “How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe” (PDF) shows, there has always been disagreement and uncertainty about how best to use it.

So no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few committed sticklers, to be relived next time a big brand or institution puts pragmatism over fastidious punctuation. Best get used to it.


Two excellent posts on Waterstones and the use and history of the apostrophe: Michael Rosen explores the politics of punctuation; and David Crystal notes that English writing did fine for almost a millennium without the mark.

John E. McIntyre weighs in at You Don’t Say: apostrophe usage is “a mess and a muddle”, he writes, and resolving it all is “a doomed venture”. So we shouldn’t fret over brands and signs and menus but instead focus on our own writing. He concludes with a fine line — “You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden” — that echoes an analogy by C. S. Lewis I wrote about recently.

In my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail‘s apocalyptic panic by recruiting no less a barbarian than Shakespeare.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum rejects the argument that apostrophes are needed to avoid ambiguity. He finds it sad and irritating that people

[try] to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about “incorrectness” and “ambiguity” that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all.

Its, it’s: It’s a problem

October 15, 2010

Some pet linguistic peeves are indulged, I find, not for reasons of clarity or grammatical soundness, but out of petty pedantry, habitual curmudgeonliness, or some kind of character disorder. On the other hand, I’ve been accused – affectionately, I hope – of excessive tolerance in such matters. But I have peeves of my own, one of which is the confusion over its and it’s.

Lynne Truss considers this “the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation”. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves she writes that it “sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler”, and goes on to fantasise – satirically, one hopes – about lightning strikes and unmarked graves.

My instincts are less violently judgemental. I don’t get wound up over its/it’s confusion – but I often wince at it, particularly when it appears in edited prose. So, I imagine, does Roger Ebert:

To summarise the difference: it’s is always a contraction of it is or it has. Usually the former. Keep this front and centre, and you’ll greatly reduce your chances of ever getting it wrong. Its is the possessive form of it – the third person neuter possessive pronoun. So you might write of a solitary ant: “It’s lost its way.”

It’s not just students, bloggers and learners who mix up its and it’s, but also people for whom words are central to their trade – journalists, broadcasters, reviewers, professors of law, and so on. I’ve seen lexicographers and linguists slip up.

Read the rest of this entry »

Plain English and Golden Bulls

December 9, 2009

Yesterday the Plain English Campaign announced the winners of its Golden Bull awards 2009, a dubious honour given to individuals and companies who have unleashed the best gobbledegook upon an unfortunate reading public. And by ‘best’ I mean ‘worst’.

Unfortunately, the page is littered with erroneous apostrophes. Part of the problem seems to be a formatting glitch, which I’ve noted before: WordPress and some other self-publishing platforms automatically curl apostrophes and inverted commas (AKA quotation marks), sometimes the wrong way. That the apostrophes have been transformed into double inverted commas is another matter:

But that’s enough cosmetic griping. And since I drafted this post, a representative of the Plain English Campaign has contacted me to say they will soon fix the problem.

Among this year’s Golden Bull winners were Coca Cola, who “outsource some aspects of our Finance transactional processing activities”, and the UK Department of Health, who report that primary disease prevention “has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease”. I must admit I like this description, in the same way that I like terrible poetry, but I understand why its use by the British government should invite censure and even ridicule.

I will pause a moment, to allow your nervous system to ready itself for a final example:

Neither the execution and delivery by the Consultant of this Agreement nor the consummation by it of any of the transactions contemplated hereby, requires, with respect to it, the consent or approval of the giving of notice to, the registration, with the record or filing of any document with, or the taking of any other action in respect of any government authority, except such as are not yet required (as to which it has no reason to believe that the same will not be readily obtainable in the ordinary course of business upon due application therefore) or which have been duly obtained and are in full force and effect.

This snippet of extreme legalese, a stupefyingly convoluted clause in a contractors’ agreement, comes courtesy of the Dublin Airport Authority. It is so tortuous that it is virtually incomprehensible, yet one suspects that what it purports to convey is really quite straightforward. Legal diction, however, is “almost necessarily obscure”, as Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words.

If it is readily intelligible, so much the better; but it is far more important that it should yield its meaning accurately that that it should yield it on first reading, and the legal draftsman cannot afford to give much attention, if any, to euphony or literary elegance. What matters most to him is that no one will succeed in persuading a court of law that his words bear a meaning he did not intend, and, if possible, that no one will think it worth while to try.
All this means that his drafting is not to be judged by normal standards of good writing…

Double standards therefore do apply, and with good reason, but problems arise when legal jargon is selected for its own sake, or because one suffers from jargonitis — an inability to avoid using jargon even when plain English alternatives are possible and appropriate. The condition may be contagious.

Since I am not a lawyer, I will not try to translate the Dublin Airport Authority’s example into readable and unambiguous English. I will instead refer readers to an earlier post on Sentence first, concerning the plain style and its advantages in formal writing. ‘Notes on the plain style’ was in fact my second ever post on this blog, following a brief introduction, and it received its first comment quite recently. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a comment from a new reader is infinitely better than a Golden Bull Award.

[For more like this, click on gobbledegook or plain English in the tag cloud on the right-hand side of this page.]

Introducing the apostrophantom

September 17, 2009

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.)


An apostrophantom in the wild, from Lynne Murphy: