AN APOSTROPHIC CHALLENGE.

Adam Kotsko at An und für sich (which I should really visit more often), annoyed by apostrophes, writes:

For instance, take the use of the apostrophe to designate either possessives or contractions. It seems to me that these apostrophes do not actually add any information that is not already supplied naturally by the context — if you left out all apostrophes, you could still tell which words were contractions (as opposed to homographs like “wont” and “cant,” which are rare to begin with) and, even more radically, I contend that you could tell whether it was a plural, a possessive, or a plural possessive.
To demonstrate this bold claim, I challenge our readers to come up with a sentence that is (a) somewhat plausible and (b) could be genuinely ambiguous if plurals/possessives were not distinguished using apostrophes.

As could have been predicted, his challenge was easily met, and he conceded defeat graciously; Charlie Collier added a comment that begins “ANCIENTGREEKMANUSCRIPTSHADONLYCAPITALLETTERSNOSPACESBETWEENWORDS…” to point out that just because you can do without something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to, something that should be more generally remembered. But what I really came here to post about was Adam’s excellent opening paragraph:

I am teaching a writing-intensive course this semester, and one challenge is how to deal with students who “aren’t good at grammar.” On the one hand, one does want to help them write in the way generally recognized as “proper.” On the other hand, there is a level at which one must admit that there is something unjust about the way arbitrary conventions are used to judge intelligence — someone who writes in a non-standard way is not regarded simply as non-conformist, but is often judged as being somehow dumb.

How I wish more people understood and internalized that point. A large part of my motive for starting this blog was to get people to do so.

Comments

  1. “someone who writes in a non-standard way is not regarded simply as non-conformist, but is often judged as being somehow dumb.” But is it always unfair? Isn’t it possible that someone who doesn’t notice that he writes in a very non-standard way, or proves incapable of copying the standard way, may be in one sense “dumb”. “May” I say, not “must”.
    On a perhaps comparable point where I have a stronger view: practically everyone who teaches in a university has himself been taught in a university. He therefore has had ample opportunity to observe which teaching habits are effective, which not. If he is himself a bad teacher, I infer that either (i) he’s too dim to have noticed, or (ii) too dim to copy the effective habits, or (iii) too selfish to give a hoot about his students, or (iv) is keen to teach badly so that he’s allocated lighter teaching duties. In my experience, everyone I’ve known who has been a bad teacher has shown either (or both) the intellectual flaws of (i) and (ii), or the character flaws of (ii) and (iv). Naturally I exempt from this conclusion (v) people who didn’t get the chance to see what works locally, (vi) people who are ill in some way, and, up to a point, (vii) people carrying some other handicap such as an impenetrable accent.

  2. mollymooly says:

    @dearieme: forming a subset of (iii) are teachers who believe (1) all my teachers were incompetent; (2) I turned out all right; and (3) my students can muddle through in the same way.

  3. As a long-time lurker here on the Hat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t stick my head up briefly to mention that Adam Kotsko is a professor at my own dear alma mater, tiny idiosyncratic Shimer College, the Great Books college of Chicago. And very glad we are to have him!

  4. there is something unjust
    Lots of things are unjust, but until the revolution comes Adam should teach his students to to write standard English well when they’re applying for a job. He should teach them to write well in their own dialect too. The important thing is for them to be able to see the difference and use it to their advantage. Official bodies are slowly becoming more aware of dyslexia. I read recently on the site of the University of London’s school of architecture (the Bartlett, an excellent school) that 15% of architects are dyslexic (Richard Rogers, for example), and they therefore don’t discriminate against dyslexics when they choose their students.

  5. John Emerson says:

    A lot of very smart tech and business people aren’t able to write. It’s really a specific skill. Businessmen hire secretaries and aides who can write.
    When I was teaching writing there was a dispute between the director who wanted to teach grammar only and the assistant director and future director who wanted to teach writing too. Grammar-only ends up teaching defensive writing free of mistakes. There’s a pretty big issue here, though I don’t know how it relates to Kotsko’s specific class.

  6. “As a long-time lurker here on the Hat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t stick my head up briefly to mention that Adam Kotsko is a professor at my own dear alma mater, tiny idiosyncratic Shimer College, the Great Books college of Chicago. And very glad we are to have him!”
    So he can lament “injustice” each time one of his charges turns in indecipherable copy? That’s sure to churn out perspicacious readers of Great Books!

  7. There seem to me to be two possible controversies about teaching grammar.
    One is the teaching of ‘grammar rules’, i.e., prescriptive grammar. Despite the fact that a lot of people dislike it, this seems to me useful in a strictly social sense, as long as it doesn’t get too nitpicky and arbitrary. These silly rules are, after all, necessary if you want to ‘get on’, although not to the point that they consume precious time and energy quibbling about ‘what is right’. It needs to be made clear from the start that ‘these are rules that people are expected to follow; following them will stop raising unnecessary flags in certain people’s minds as they read what you wrote and might even help improve the clarity of your writing’.
    The second is the teaching of basic grammatical categories. Unfortunately the trend seems to be that teaching people about verbs and nouns and adjectives and articles and relative clauses is regarded as ‘too hard and technical’. I was rather shocked once when my brother (who is a good writer when necessary) came out and said ‘Who cares if people don’t know what a definite article is?’ There seems to be an attitude among some people that not only silly grammatical rules, but also useful grammatical concepts should be thrown out as useless. How do you speak of any kind of grammatical phenomenon without the basic vocabulary of ‘nouns’, ‘verbs’, etc. Other disciplines are allowed to have their technical jargon; it is only grammatical terms that are regarded as ‘useless’.
    I suspect such thinking more easily takes root in societies that place little value on learning foreign languages. Granted that there are different ways of teaching a foreign language, some of which make a point of avoiding ‘grammar’ (meaning grammatical analysis using those dreaded grammatical terms), but I really find it difficult to understand how you can discuss the details of language in any way without at least a modicum of technical terminology. What are you supposed to do? Say ‘find the action words that take endings (or could potentially take endings) to show who is doing the action’ when you want to say ‘find the finite verb’?

  8. Actually, ‘find the action words that take endings (or could potentially take endings) to show who is doing the action’ is probably wrong. How do you say ‘find the finite verb’? My understanding of grammar in English is very much based on old categories like ‘clause’ (containing a finite verb) and ‘phrase’ (not containing a finite verb). These are among the basic building blocks of writing. Of course you can learn to be a good writer without them, just as virtuoso musicians can learn to play music without being able to read music, but it seems contrary to insist that people who want to learn a musical instrument should not learn to read music as a matter of principle.

  9. Bathrobe:
    The trouble arises when the rules are mutually contradictory. The writer who commits to Every tenant is responsible for painting ________ own door has three choices, his, his or her, and their, every one of which will be criticized by one or more set of prescriptivists. We can live without the word comprise, but we cannot live without pronoun reference to indefinite noun phrases.
    The other problem is coupled with this one: because the emphasis has been on rules, the teaching of actual grammar has been and remains extraordinarily incompetent, the moral equivalent of teaching pre-Newtonian physics. So reformers tend to discard baby along with bathwater.

  10. there is something unjust about the way arbitrary conventions are used to judge intelligence
    Probably unjust at some level, but I could argue it is as a good a rule of thumb as any other measure of “intelligence”. At least in my ethnically homogeneous New Hampshire high school there seemed to be a strong correlation between ability to master arbitrary social conventions, like English grammar, and “intelligence”, where intelligence is a proxy for proficiency in following a path to a socially valued and/or well compensated profession.

  11. At least in my ethnically homogeneous New Hampshire high school there seemed to be a strong correlation between ability to master arbitrary social conventions, like English grammar, and “intelligence”, where intelligence is a proxy for proficiency in following a path to a socially valued and/or well compensated profession.
    And how would you distinguish that from a statement, a century or so ago, that “there seems to be a strong correlation between skin color and ‘intelligence’, where intelligence is a proxy for proficiency in following a path to a socially valued and/or well compensated profession”? Not baiting you, just trying to get you to see the problem with your logic.

  12. There’s no problem with his logic, Language. He’s saying that if you can master arbitrary social conventions – not splitting infinitives or being white, say – you have a better chance of getting a desirable job (one with money and or prestige). This mastery is known as “intelligence”. The criteria change over time as the social conventions change.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would be more impressed with this concern if we could see an example of this “non-conformist” student prose so we could see if we find it powerful/expressive/moving/etc. albeit written in a syntactically/lexically non-standard variety of English or if we just find it vague/ineffectual/depressing (as is much student writing that conforms to prestige-variety grammar norms, of course).

  14. I am teaching a writing-intensive course this semester, and one challenge is how to deal with students who “aren’t good at grammar.” On the one hand, one does want to help them write in the way generally recognized as “proper.” On the other hand, there is a level at which one must admit that there is something unjust about the way arbitrary conventions are used to judge intelligence — someone who writes in a non-standard way is not regarded simply as non-conformist, but is often judged as being somehow dumb.
    Two books: A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by
    Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum
    and Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Study the first, use the second often as a reference. Students who spent a course doing that would a) understand what grammar is; b) have enough of it under their belts to help with their writing, even if they didn’t master all the new jargon; c) stop confusing grammar with formality and shibboleths; and d) would no longer be intimidated by prescrptivists. Problem solved, no?

  15. I think, if you want to use terms that seem to be a getting a slightly pejorative shading, that in this particular context, prescriptivists appear to have the edge. Bathrobe, AJP and Vanya express, much better than I have, what I have tried to argue in these columns before. The way society is structured, whether we like it or not, “correct” written English simply trumps dialect/ungrammatical in e.g. employment, given two otherwise equally qualified candidates.
    So not to require it as the primary written language in education simpy penalises those not required to do so. Universities already regularly despair over the level of English used by some of their students, even the brightest.
    LH, I think the point is that this has no bearing on how literary English may be used, which of course embraces every “flavour”. It’s horses for courses.
    And where learning foreign languages is concerned, my father, who taught French (his mother tongue) always said he often had to teach his students basic English grammar before he could start them in French. This even at a time when I was most thoroughly taught grammar in junior school – parsing, analysis etc – and have been thankful for it ever since, as I have been for having been obliged learn how to spell correctly. This was all before I was 12, so I had the full grounding. Then we moved, and we able to move intelligently, on to Eng. Lit. etc.
    I add that over-concentration on grammar and literature in learning foreign languages can be very negative. When living in Paris, we often entertained UK university students studying French, who knew Moliere backwards but couldn’t actually talk French with any fluency at all. Continental Europe teaches languages infinitely better than the UK, I think.

  16. It definitely bothers me when people uncritically accept the current prejudices in business and society at large against dialects. Just because that’s how it is now doesn’t mean that’s how it should be. And prejudices don’t fade away if we cater to them.
    On the other hand, I wish I had been taught even the most outrageous rules of proper English, because following rules, even unnatural and cumbersome ones, forces you to focus on craft. In the SFUSD, students with a fair grasp on written English are taught almost no grammar but are still graded on it. So I had to learn made-up prescriptions like that prohibiting ending sentences in prepositions and the prejudice against passive voice from my mama. We did eventually cover some of those topics, but long after teachers expected us to known about them.

  17. John Emerson says:

    F Scott Fitzgerald was famous for his bad spelling and other mistakes. Was he stupid? Should his editor have returned his manuscripts to him with the instruction that he needed to learn to write? And there are other, less famous Fitzgeralds out there.
    I have experienced the dilemma Kotsko talked about. The question is where to begin. Do you begin by helping people learn how express their ideas, or do you begin by teaching them how to avoid mistakes?
    It is not generally true that people who can express themselves correctly in English do better in the world, and businessmen know that. They know that English majors to do their spelling and grammar for them will always be cheap and plentiful. I am not kidding. Mothers, don’t let your children grow up to be English majors.

  18. “The tenants must paint the tenants’ own doors.”
    “Each/Every tenant must paint the/that tenant’s own door.”
    “Note to all tenants: You must paint your own door.”
    “If you are a tenant, you must paint your own door; or hire somebody else to do it, since I’m too busy to do it myself, so you’ll just have to get it done yourself, and the doors look really awful if they don’t get painted, but you can come to me if it’s something really vital like the roof collapsing or something…”

  19. A rancher left his ranch to his three sons, who named the ranch “Focus” because it was where the sons raise meat.
    Even better is if the rancher was a Byzantine Emperor who happened to be named Phocas…

  20. This mastery is known as “intelligence”.
    Not by me.

  21. Well not by me either, but that’s the point.

  22. Stephen, your first three translations require the tenant to do the work themselves (I plump for the third choice), which my version does not. Your fourth version doesn’t have that problem, and would be suitable for a conversation, but hardly for a lease, even a plain-language lease.

  23. I know you’re keen on Nabokov, Hat, but isn’t this going a little far?

  24. Eh?

  25. Well not by me either, but that’s the point.

    Nor anyone here! Crown imputed the view to Vanya; Vanya argued for a correlation, not an equivalence. No-one asserted that comfort and facility with the standard language was the same thing as intelligence. Indeed, Vanya also makes the important point that intelligence in itself is not identical to ‘proficiency in following a path to a socially valued and/or well compensated profession.’

  26. Well cleared-up, Aidan. I, for one, am clueless as to where Paul has found these prescriptivists with an edge.

  27. Well cleared-up, Aidan. I, for one, am clueless as to where Paul has found these prescriptivists with an edge.

  28. I did not impute anything to Vanya! At least, I don’t think I did. I’m not sure what you’re saying Dr Aidan. Vanya observed that intelligence is always graded according to the social norms of the grader. I agree. Because we judge everything by our own subjective criteria that’s also why people are smart and animals are ‘dumb’, incidentally.

  29. I think both Crown and Vanya were making a statement about the arbitrary nature of intelligence, as defined socially, only it seemed Crown was making it at Vanya’s expense, not picking up on Vanya’s initial skepticism. Now Crown has made clear that that’s not what he was doing, only reinforcing the same point. So no argument — unless *Hat* and Vanya still think their points are at odds, in which case I’m lost.

  30. We haven’t heard back from Vanya, but I still strongly disagree with “it is as a good a rule of thumb as any other measure of ‘intelligence,’” if that statement was meant seriously. But then I am dubious about any measure of intelligence.

  31. I am dubious about any measure of intelligence.
    I think that that’s what us peacemaking hippies have been trying to say everyone was really emphasizing; but if that wasn’t Vanya’s emphasis — and Aidan (and everyone else, I guess) was wrongly giving him the benefit of the doubt — then I’ll grimly trade this tie-dye for a spear and join your serried ranks.

  32. Oh the irony, that we can’t understand one another.
    I took “it is as a good a rule of thumb as any other measure of ‘intelligence,’” to mean that he didn’t have much faith in any measures of intelligence. Vanya continued: “intelligence”, where intelligence is a proxy for proficiency in following a path to a socially valued and/or well compensated profession. In other words “if you want to be a bank manager then you’d better behave like a bank manager”, not “bank managers are super-intelligent beings”. Yeah, so it’s like, so-called intelligence, man.
    Peas.

  33. Hat, I was referring to the dozens of links to Lolita porn sites, now all sadly deleted.

  34. Yup, right on cue…

  35. I took “it is as a good a rule of thumb as any other measure of ‘intelligence,’” to mean that he didn’t have much faith in any measures of intelligence.
    Ah, I hadn’t thought of that reading. If that’s what he meant, I stand in solidarity with my tie-dyed friend Vanya! Fight the power!

  36. The Lolitas (and Lolita boys, even) return, if only briefly.

  37. “I still strongly disagree with “it is as a good a rule of thumb as any other measure of ‘intelligence,’” if that statement was meant seriously.”
    So what is your rule of thumb? IQ tests? Phrenology? I thought the apostrophes made it very clear that I don’t believe any measure of intelligence is particulary accurate. People generally like to define “intelligence” in a way that makes their own particular aptitudes seem more important, which is clearly a motivation for many prescriptionists (but also visual artists, poets, architects, engineers, lawyers, etc. which is why I don’t feel prescriptionists are guilty of any sins more egregious than any other cliquish status-seeking group in our culture.)
    In any case using apostrophes to express ironic distance is an arbitrary convention, which some people may not be “intelligent” enough to understand. ;-).

  38. OK, I think we’re all in agreement, and I’m going to close this sucker down, since for the usual incomprehensible reasons the spammers have fastened on it and I just had to delete about seventy spam comments. Thanks, everyone, for a most enjoyable discussion, Lolitas and all!

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