English As She Is Writ - part fourteen

The apostrophe - contractions and elision

This little mark ’ seems to cause more difficulty than all the other punctuation marks put together. But it’s really very simple. The apostrophe has only two uses:

  • to indicate that a letter has been omitted – from a word or, more usually, from two or more words that have been combined (this is known as elision);
  • to indicate possession.

These are entirely separate usages. In this instalment of the blog I’ll deal with the apostrophe indicating elision; the question of possession merits an instalment all to itself.

The apostrophe never, ever indicates a plural. The greengrocer’s apostrophe pops up everywhere, not just on market stalls selling potatoe’s  (or potato’s) and tomato’s, but in otherwise competently written texts that refer to the 1930’s, at garages that advertise that they carry out MOT’s – they are all over the place and they are all wrong. Potatoes; tomatoes; 1930s; MOTs. To make a noun plural, just add the letter S (usually). Never insert an apostrophe. There is quite enough punctuation in written English; why on earth would you want to invent more?

I will almost certainly return to this topic in the next instalment, as it’s impossible to overstate how wrong it is to use an apostrophe to indicate that there’s more than one of a thing. 

The apostrophe indicating elision

When speaking, we tend to merge words. Cannot becomes can’t, for example; it is becomes it’s. These forms are known as contractions, for the obvious reason that the words have been squashed together (and one letter or more has been squeezed out).

For a long time after writing was invented this didn’t matter: writing, after all, does not represent speech, as is evidenced by the number of shortcuts that writers and then printers of English texts adopted in order to save time and ink: signs such as ye (the abbreviated form of ‘the’), etc (short for et cetera, Latin for ‘and the others’), and & (the sign known as the ampersand, meaning ‘and’). These abbreviations and signs when spoken are pronounced ‘the’, ‘et cetera’ and ‘and’, respectively; I cannot mention too often that written or printed words are, like these signs and abbreviations, visual symbols, not transcriptions of the sounds we make when we speak.

However, in the seventeenth century people started writing novels, and they wanted to indicate in their writing how people actually spoke. And so all of the contracted words (words that squash into each other) had to be represented somehow, and the sign that was settled on to indicate that letters had been squeezed out was the apostrophe.

The basic mechanism is very simple: insert an apostrophe in the place where one or more letters have been omitted. Here is a long list of examples:

  • Cannot = can’t
  • Should not = shouldn’t
  • Will not = won’t
  • Shall not = shan’t
  • I will = I’ll
  • It is = it’s
  • He is = he’s
  • He has = he’s
  • We are = we’re
  • Did not = didn’t
  • There is = there’s
  • Where is = where’s
  • He had = he’d
  • We would = we’d
  • Is not = isn’t
  • Rock and roll = rock’n’roll

There are plenty more elided words in the English language, but you won’t go far wrong if you just place an apostrophe wherever a letter or group of letters have been omitted. Oh, and don’t leave a space either before or after such an apostrophe.

It is worth noting that some contractions represent more than one original combination of words. Here’s an example:

I had already eaten dinner; I decided I would eschew supper.

With elisions, this becomes:

I’d already eaten dinner; I decided I’d eschew supper.

You see? I’d twice, but with different meanings. This is one of the reasons that formal and legal documents don’t use contractions: the meaning isn’t always clear, and one contracted form may have more than one possible meaning. In a situation where precision is required, do not use contractions.

Both ‘I will’ and ‘I shall’ contract to I’ll; ‘they will’ and ‘they shall’ both contract to they’ll. This is unfortunate, as will and shall, while both indicating the future tense of any verb they are coupled with, have slightly different meanings. Because will and shall are so often elided the difference is becoming forgotten. For the record, though, here it is. Consider these two sentences:

  • I shall visit Hove, and nothing will stop me; once there I shall order scones, and you will pay for them.
  • I will visit Hove, and nothing shall stop me; once there I will order scones, and you shall pay for them. 

The first simply states what the future holds; it an airy statement of what is likely to happen. The second is subtly different: it expresses determination, almost defiance, the exertion of the narrator’s will. I acknowledge that this subtle difference between will and shall passes largely unnoticed; feel free to ignore it.

An example of wrongful elision: there’s a public house near where I live which calls itself the Pig n’ Whistle. There’s not much right with this. In the first place, why not call it The Pig and Whistle? But if the landlord insists on elision it should be elided to The Pig’n’Whistle, I suppose. I keep meaning to go in and have a word with the staff, but the place always appears empty and I can’t help thinking they have more pressing matters to worry about.

Written English has become, in these days of electronic communication, much less formal. There are, however, still some situations in which it is advisable not to use contractions: academic papers, for instance, and letters to persons in authority (or letters to anyone if you are writing on behalf of an authority). When I was an Inspector of Taxes I didn’t use contractions in hard-copy letters that I issued to taxpayers and their agents; when writing e-mails I was less formal.

I advise against contracting some common combinations of words. In particular I don’t like to read contractions of these:

  • Should have
  • Would have
  • Could have

In speech these combinations are, in fact, barely elided, when you consider that the letter H is often silent anyway. Most people would say something like should’ave, and I see no reason to render that in writing as anything other than ‘should have’. ‘Should’ve’, which I see written increasingly frequently, seems to me to represent the spoken elision less accurately than ‘should have’.

That’s about it for contractions, elision, and the use of the apostrophe therein. In the next instalment: the apostrophe as used to indicate possession. Huge fun.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.