The Philosopher's Cornered
Apostrophe-s, Change, and Balance
by Dan Wolaver
The "apostrophe-s" is
sometimes confusing (as in the name of this column), leaving the reader
unsure whether it's a possessive or a contraction. This dual use
has led to
misspelling* the possessive "its" as "it's."
The confusion is understandable since "its" is the only
instance of adding only an "s" to form the possessive (we
speak of "its nose" but not "hers nose"). So I
wouldn't be surprised if "it's" becomes an acceptable
possessive in the next twenty years. "Alright" in place
of "all right" has been acceptable usage in Britain for a
century, although scholars in the USA still object. Why, since
"already" is acceptable? What about "alot"
rather than "a lot"?
The point is that language evolves to be simpler without becoming confusing, and natural selection tends to enforce this outcome. This is not to say that change should be willy-nilly; one should try to maintain a standard. I was taught that "snuck" was slang for "sneaked," and I avoided it. But now "snuck" is the preferred form, as I can tell from listening to news reporters for example. Now I've adopted "snuck" so I don't sound like an old geezer; I've given up a losing battle.
So the second point is that we shouldn't feel bad about social evolution. We shouldn't shake our heads and say, "I don't know what the world is coming to. We're degenerating to crude slang as well as other changes I don't like. Why do things have to change? Why can't we stick with what's right and true and proper?" No one today thinks the replacement of "thee" and "thou" and "ye" with one simple "you" was an unfortunate outcome of evolution. But you can bet there were some pretty irate parents back in the eighteenth century when their kids started sloppily using "you" for everything. In my father's and grandfather's generations it was improper for a man to appear in public without a fedora covering his head. Is our generation (and our kids' generation) wrong?
So it's a question of balance, as with all questions of right and wrong. How do you balance the need for standards with the need to evolve to better systems? A variety of opinions leads to a healthy debate, and it forms the spectrum from conservative to liberal. Rather than say, "You're wrong," we should say, "My sense of balance is different, and here's why."
And that's my philosophy.
* "Misspelling" is misspelled "mispelling" 9% of the time. And "pronunciation" is mispronounced "pronounciation" 8% of the time.