Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 11, 2015--Apostrophe

David Gates' Jernigan, his rather good first novel, is another in the line of American novels narrated by wisecracking curmudgeons. Holden Caulfield and Moses Herzog among others come to mind.

Some have suggested adding Jernigan to that distinguished list.

I recently had a chance to reread it. It is a bit of a period piece, as much about the alienating 1980s as the ferociously intelligent malcontent narrator. Though his tell-it-like-it-is wit propels the narrative, the human debris left behind include his wife, teenage son, his fragile mistress, and of course Jernigan himself who is seen ultimately joking his way over the edge.

His best friend, Uncle Fred, is not much help, but is a wonderful second banana and occasionally comes up with things worth contemplating. Like the following--
Uncle Fred announced that he was an apostrophe. I thought what he meant was apostate and I asked for some clarification on that. 
"It's like I'm there to show that something's missing.
Three apostrophes in one sentence! Not bad.

Unlike Uncle Fred, I see apostrophes when used in contractions to be less about the absence of something than the indication of the absence of something.

In Uncle Fred's case, he thinks of himself as an apostrophe because there is indeed something missing from his character. Character itself! But there are also indications of the shape of what that means. Thus, he is among the book's richest characters. Because of what is indicated to be missing.

So apostrophes are very much about something important. Not just something absent. A subtle difference for certain.

In Uncle Fred's three-appostrophy sentence, for example, the apostrophes help in the simulation of real speech. How we actually sound--not "It is like," but "It's like." Not "I am there to show" but, better, "I'm there to show." And not "something is missing" but "something's missing."

So in my view, the indication of the absence of something, not of something missing, in this case or many others, is not a void but a vibrant, inclusive piece of prose made robust by the stylistic capacities apostrophes enable.

Of course, having begun to think about this I turned to the history of apostrophes, thinking, since the etymology seems to be French--no surprise at at all if that turns out to be true--I would begin with that assumption.

The French have been especially inventive when it comes to the creation of new words, syntax, ligatures, and diacritical and punctuation marks.

This turns out to be true. Wiki reports that in imitation of French practice, the apostrophe was introduced into English in the 16th century.

In French it was used in place of a vowel or letter to indicate elision (to omit as a sound when speaking), as in l'heure in place of la heure.

It was also used in place of a final e (which was still pronounced in the 16th century) when it was elided before a vowel, as in un' heure.

English as employed both in Briton and the United States finds apostrophes ideal for more than contractions. More commonly they are used to indicate possession. As in a woman's hat or Smith's house or the boss's wife.

(I especially like that string of s's.)

More than that you risk entering the grammarian's world of correctness where rules abound. To enforce them there is even in the UK the Apostrophe Protection Society. Anyone can be a member. No sponsor is required.

One only needs to agree that one's favorite is Lewis Carroll's elisions in sha'n't for shall not.

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