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Damn you and the apostrophe you rode in on

A few weeks back I had a slight altercation with a colleague. We work in publishing together and write content for our clients on a daily basis. The gripe was over (and when is it not?) a missing apostrophe that I was adamant needed to be there. A confusing one, I'd concede. One that forms part of what's known as the genitive case in English and is needed to signal a relationship between two nouns where one acts as a modifier of the other. "Seven to eight hours' sleep" was the sentence in question, by the way. But, blah blah. By now I've probably lost your interest, except for maybe fellow linguini (not the pasta) and Bizcommunity contributor, Tiffany Markman.
My colleague's argument was that "language evolves", a fact that I acknowledge and, in the past, have embraced. Our 'words war' drove home the following point: that there are two sides to any grammar debate and you're either happily camped in Team Prescriptivism or Team Descriptivism.

Team Prescriptivism looks in horror at "your" when the writer (or more often, tweeter) means "you're" while Team Descriptivism logs the anomaly into their corpus linguistic database and watches gleefully as English is moulded by new generations. Is Team D the Steve Jobs of language with their innovative ways of economising English? Shortening and simplifying communication to the point that even the Oxford English Dictionary is getting on-board? Apologies, I mean onboard, because as part of its sixth edition, the OED removed hyphens from around 16,000 words. Why? "It has happened because we are changing the way we communicate with each other," explained OED editor Angus Stevenson, "we no longer have time to reach for the hyphen key."

Death of a hyphen

We "no longer have time to reach for the hyphen key"?! I felt I needed to repeat that for some poetic emphasis. Don't get me wrong: this post is not my soapbox to preach all things grammar because I choose to make language 'mistakes' too. I love to cheekily split infinitives. And I don't believe you can't start a sentence with a conjunction. Some things are just wrong though. Plain wrong. Using "it's" when you mean "its" and popping in an apostrophe to signal a plural; "Please no photo's". Shall we be letting these errors creep into our language and taint its honour? Just as we aren't able to decipher Old English unless we've studied it (Þæt wæs god cyning), perhaps Post-Modern English will be just as incomprehensible (btw jsyk irl i dnt tlk lyk thz eva).

Here is where we're at in our language evolution: Team Prescriptivism is anxious; Team Descriptivism, euphoric.

Linguistic superheroes

I don't believe that grammar should be a full reflection of your linguistic powers or your overall writing ability but the truth is, it very often is. You can't help but judge copy that looks like it missed the (subbing) boat. As writers, we are held to a higher grammar standard by our peers because, if we don't 'get' it, how on earth are others meant to?

I was recently shamed for saying, "I feel nauseous." Up until that point, I had lived my 27 years not knowing that "to be nauseous" doesn't mean you feel ill: it actually means you produce the feeling of nausea in others. Am I alone here? Did you all know this while I sat on the sideline embarrassing myself?

What I've come to (begrudgingly) accept is that there are a multitude of (mis)used words and expressions that, in time *may* become the norm. Sure, it's a mute point that language is changing but it's now time to get the just of it all. And after this post, I sure need a few hours sleep.

About Leigh Crymble

Leigh Crymble is a senior marketing manager at a leading health insurance company in Joburg. Passionate about all things linguistic, she is interested in new ways of communicating and the online language trends in South Africa. Twitter @Le1ghLo
Annemarie Roodbol
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and completely agree!
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 10:27
James Gradidge
A moot point, indeed, but some foundations should remain as solid as they are. Frank Zappa alluded by dedicating an entire album to the Apostrophe('), in 1974. - Whimsical Mastery.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 10:38
Brehndan Botha
I whole-heartedly agree. It's a practise that leaves me thoroughly nauseated. I agree that language evolves - it's, after all, a living thing. But, without correct grammar and syntax we lose the ability to direct verbal or phraseological emphasis; not to mention potentially changing the meaning of a sentence completely by using the wrong word. e.g. 'There, Mother, is a cow' is not the same as 'Their mother is a cow' neither in meaning nor intent.I believe that often the grammatical change is more the result of ignorance, rather than an evolving language; and ingorance seldom is a valid excuse for anything.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 13:36
kate kennedy
I'm so with you on this one. SMS shorthand drives me nuts and those apostrophes are damn important in my world. Split infinitives, starting sentences with conjunctions - I can live with, and often execute - but the shorthand is just plain lazy. Although I suspect part of the reason it evolved in the first place is that people had no idea how to spell and couldn't find it on autocorrect :-) Emoticons, though, are heaven sent.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 13:41
Priya Shukla
My fellow proofreaders and copywriters have expressed not-too-little rage at the fact that there are 16 000 (#$*&) words missing their hyphens. After having spent five editions with them, these words are now rudderless! I refuse to believe that we are too lazy to use the hyphen. That's preposterous!Good read, Leigh. Devastating, but good.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 13:47
Brian Tristam Williams
"Language evolves" is the first grasped straw of the insecure fool who didn't know better and can't admit it, even after eight hours' sleep. Someone should give that colleague two weeks' notice.You just keep doing what you're doing - well, and don't let that colleague con u into rytin lyk dis.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 13:59
Pat Kruger
As explained in the Oxford and the Funk & Wagnells Dictionary. Nauseous - Sick, to feel ill, queasy, bilious.Nauseating - Disgusting, revolting repulsive, reellent repugnant offensive loathsome, abhoent, odious.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 14:38
Stevie Godson
This "too little time" excuse just won't wash. If that's true, then why are (probably) the same people wasting so much time tapping in so many misplaced apostrophes?
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 15:01
Christine de Nobrega
I constantly bemoan apostrophic errors. I want to take my little Artline 90 (black) and correct all those nauseating (not nauseous) errors that appear on anything from huge perspex signs to tiny sales signs. They beauty of our language is not evolving - it's dying. And too many people are cheering that death along.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 15:49
Laura Baasch
Couldn't agree less myself and I think Stephen Fry summed it up for me in this beautifully illustrated youtube video. If one is able to clearly and concisely get one's point across then is grammar truly the be all and end all? I think not.?v=J7E-aoXLZGY
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 15:52
Henry H. Pinkham
Very good article, Leigh!As a full-time free-lance language practitioner, I agree with most of the posts above. Correct language use promotes understanding. "Language evolves" is no excuse, not even for dictionaries to make 180-degree turns, or for SMS-language to be used in other applications. Do we want communication to be destroyed? If we do, it's easy to screw-up by forcing our languages to evolve into gibberish, without really trying.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 16:27
tawanda mukwasi
Good one, Leigh!
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 17:31
Stevie Godson
Clarity should always be the key. Change for change's sake is nonsense.
Posted on 26 Jul 2013 18:32
Llewellyn Kriel
As a provincial high-board diver way too many years ago, I once watched spellbound as two clowns cavorted and made completed idiots of themselves. I remember thinking how they probably couldn't make the grade with the rest of us and had to resort to tomfoolery as a poor substitute. Later that day I watched awe-struck as they consistently scored 9.5s overall with their breathtaking dives.The lesson learnt? Only when you really, really, REALLY know what you're doing, when you 're the best there is, will you be good enough to play the fool with your craft. Your colleague clearly is not of that cloth yet, Leigh.
Posted on 28 Jul 2013 09:30
Llewellyn Kriel
May I ask how you acquired accreditation as a "language practitioner"?I ask for two reasons. 1. This is an accreditation I am eager to acquire, and 2. the outputs of "language practitioners" I have seen to date (especially in pharmaceutical and legal documents) is little short of downright wrong (eg. hematology instead of haematology, and prolix and convoluted constructs such as "at this present moment in time" when "now" would be accurate and simpler).Thanks.
Posted on 28 Jul 2013 09:37
Leigh Crymble
Thanks for all the feedback and comments. It's great to see that people are still passionate about language, whether you're Team P or D ;)
Posted on 28 Jul 2013 23:09
Alisha Spykerman
What a great article Leigh! I am not a writer myself, but a proud enthusiast of the English language and learn something new everyday (I will never be nauseous again)! :) Albeit I feel like jumping off a balcony every time I see a spelling error or SMS shorthand. In fact, I believe SMS shorthand has lead people to become completely ignorant of the English language and basic spelling and apostrophe rules fly out the window faster than the next tweet. What's even worse is the billboards and advertisements fledged with errors, as someone in marketing, the company in question immediately loses credibility and I subconsciously vow to never use them again. Thank you for the article and I am glad to see there are still some writers fighting for what should not be forgotten!
Posted on 29 Jul 2013 09:09
Simon Roche
There is no disputing that correct English is advantageous; it allows the language to be precise and discriminating. Like many privileged South Africans, I am not oblivious to the advantage I have. Nonetheless, I illustrate my point as follows. I have done much work for the government, and I can hardly tell you how often we have battled to understand a brief or an instruction, and had to consult amongst ourselves to decipher it on a balance of probability basis, rather than embarrass our client. That, particularly because it is an environment in which specifications change much and frequently. It begins with apostrophes which baffle one over whether a number of days' work has changed (many becomes, suddenly, singular with one apostrophe), goes on to their versus there (I have seen a perfect example of ambiguity, even for those two apparently not-interchangeable words), and eventually ends up with missing semi-colons, full stops, and commas, to the point where one cannot be certain whom or what is the subject by the end of the "sentence". I shan't labour the point by discussing syntax and language per se. Let it suffice to say that it genuinely, actually, makes a bloody big difference in practise.
Posted on 29 Jul 2013 09:25
Leigh Crymble
Hey Pat, that's interesting and just how I have used the word in the past. It was here that my world was shattered with regard to this (scroll to the bottom) ~~>
Posted on 29 Jul 2013 10:15
Marc Pienaar
The "language is an evolving, living thing" argument actually isn't relevant. While this certainly is true *over time*, and any given point *in time*, there are clear rules.So the argument can't be used in defence of bad grammar. The moment someone reaches for it, you've won your argument, not to mention the battle of logic.
Posted on 29 Jul 2013 18:09
Marc Pienaar
*at, not and - oh dear!
Posted on 29 Jul 2013 18:14
Leigh Crymble
I've received a few emails berating me for my incorrect grammar in the last paragraph. The italicised bits *are* incorrect. I was just being facetious. But, well spotted to several Team P members ;)
Posted on 30 Jul 2013 11:47
Shane Addinall
I despise text-lish as much as the next person with a modicum of love for the English language, sadly when you compare 16th Century English and current proper English they barely resemble one another. Text-lish may be the future, my only hope is that it's a future which is far far away.
Posted on 10 Aug 2013 21:40
Brian Tristam Williams
Irony is not for everyone :)
Posted on 13 Aug 2013 16:57