Circa 1990. A street in Vancouver, British Columbia. A sign on the large window of an automobile dealership.
A woman is passing. She stops, looks, seems to struggle with herself momentarily, then she reaches a decision. She goes inside.
"Excuse me," she says politely to the salesperson who approaches her.
"And good morning to you! How may I help you?" he says, his eyes eager.
"It’s your sign. It's wrong."
The man is thrown slightly off-balance. "But – " he looks uncertainly at the backwards letters of the sign – "the new Toyotas are in. We have three demonstration models right here. If you'd like to – "
"Oh, no thank you, I have a Mazda. No, it's the apostrophe."
"The - ?"
"The apostrophe. You just want an s. Toyotas. Just s is plural. Apostrophe s is singular possessive." She does not add that s apostrophe is plural possessive. She doesn't want to get in too deep.
The man turns away, disappointed, and approaches another potential customer. The woman leaves.
This is a true story, embellished just slightly for the purposes of this blog post, whose alternate title might be, Does Grammar Matter? Why?
I have been driven mad for decades by the whole s, 's and s' business, as well as by its and it's. The art of the apostrophe seems to be getting lost. My husband is driven mad by less and fewer. Every time he hears someone say something like, "There were less people than last time" he dies a little bit inside.
But are shared rules of usage and grammar really important? Yes, because language is about communication, and shared standards enable us to understand one another, to learn from written language, to take joy from thoughts and ideas communicated (dare I say it, communicated well) in written words.
Language, of course, is not static. Today's standards will change. All languages change and evolve over time. How?
For one thing, language changes because of trade and migration, which bring words from other languages. Avatar, tsunami and sudoku are examples of recent 'loanwords' to English. Language also changes because of technology and new inventions. When did everyone start knowing what a selfie is, or, did you read my blog? Or, already decades old, can you fax that me? And old words acquire new meanings. I'll text you, mouse, web, surf and gay are some examples.
A team of Harvard researchers studied the roots of English, specifically tracing verb conjugations from the time of Beowulf 1,200 years ago through Shakespeare in the 16th century to its current form. Over the years, several past tense forms of verbs have died out in English and now only one persists as a rule: adding 'ed' to the end of verbs. In studying the evolution of words, the researchers found, interestingly, that the verbs that are used the most in everyday language are the ones that are evolving at the slowest rate. Frequent use seems to solidify them and make change more difficult.
The 'rules' of capitalization also change and evolve. In the early 17th century, capital letters were used for names and titles (Sir Galahad, Mistress Brown), and then people began using them to emphasize words and phrases as well. This fashion was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of writers like Swift and Pope are full of initial capitals used to emphasize words. However, later 18th-century grammarians wanted more discipline in written language, and thought that the proliferation of capital letters caused the loss of a useful potential distinction. This resulted in a dramatic reduction in the instances where initial capital letters were permitted.
And what about that much-abused apostrophe? Well, its uses have changed, too, over the centuries.
Apostrophes first entered the English language via French and Italian somewhere around the 16th century. At first, the apostrophe was mostly used as a substitute for other letters. Shakespeare frequently used 'tis, for instance, for it is. The same use applies today in contractions, with apostrophes standing in for missing letters.
What about possessives? What about those Toyota's?
In Shakespeare’s first folio in 1623, only about four percent of the instances in which today we would use possessive apostrophes, like Romeo’s heart, have one. At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was confusion because people didn’t really know what the apostrophe was doing in the possessive. When the apostrophe became accepted for possessive singular nouns, sometime in the late eighteenth century, some people still thought it was not appropriate for plural possessives.
And even today, the apostrophe is in flux. Whether new standards are emerging, or whether 'anything goes' is the new standard, is not yet clear.
Will social media, and fast texting, with all its abbreviations, eliminate shared standards of spelling, punctuation, capitalization and apostrophe use? It is too early to tell whether this is a kind of parallel universe of grammar, or whether it is the new reality.
Perhaps the bottom line is, does it really matter whether the new Toyotas, Toyota's or even Toyotas' are in? I guess all I can say is, well, it does to me. And probably to some of you, dear readers. The rules will change, but I vote in favor of using the ones we have right now.
At the very least, though, in order to avoid being obnoxious grammar snobs, we should be able to have fun with language, breaking the rules sometimes after we learn them, just because we can. That's what writers do, isn't it? Create magic with language. And there are different kinds of magic.
I am reminded of an old Mad Magazine article for writers called, How to Write Good. This article contained, among many helpful tips, advice for novelists who aren’t sure how to end their stories. The article offered a failsafe sentence that can be used to end any story: Suddenly they were all run over by a truck.
Till next time.