Q. Pheevr (q_pheevr) wrote,
Q. Pheevr

Apostrophes in Fairyland

...or What can't and won't can't and won't mean (with apologies to Angelika Kratzer).

What is it about the apostrophe that brings out the dogmatist in so many people? I've written before about a few of the people who are intent on upholding the current set of conventions,1 but there are also the apostrophic apostates to consider—those who believe that they have a better method of deploying the little hovering comma-shaped mark. Two who apostatized in opposite directions were George Bernard Psschaughal, who was wont to write wont where we would write won't, and Lewis Carroll, who favoured wo'n't.

Psschaughal's rationale seems pretty well self-evident—something along the lines of If you dont need it, dont write it, or Omit needless punctuation. Here, though, is what Carroll has to say for himself, in the preface to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded:

illustration by Sir John Tenniel
The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson presenting an apostrophe to his young friend Alice Pleasance Liddell
Other critics have objected to certain innovations in spelling, such as ‘ca’n’t’, ‘wo’n’t’, ‘traveler’. In reply, I can only plead my firm conviction that the popular usage is wrong. As to ‘ca’n’t’, it will not be disputed that, in all other words ending in ‘n’t’, these letters are an abbreviation of ‘not’; and it is surely absurd to suppose that, in this solitary instance, ‘not’ is represented by ‘’t’! In fact ‘can’t’ is the proper abbreviation for ‘can it’, just as ‘is’t’ is for ‘is it’.

Can't be so? Well, maybe. Carroll assumes here that every separate sequence of one or more omitted letters must be indicated by an apostrophe, and argues that when cannot is contracted, the n that is dropped is that of can, not that of not, so cannotca'n't. But is it really "absurd" to suggest that while not contracts to n't in most instances, it becomes 't after an n? Or, for that matter, couldn't we say that the two ns coalesce into one, rather than that either of them is deleted outright? There is really no way of determining conclusively which n is the missing one, and the question seems to me a rather silly one—in pronunciation, after all, can't has just as many /n/s (or just as long an /n/) as cannot. And if it would have bothered Carroll to say that can't was an exception to the rule that not contracts to n't, is it not equally troublesome that cannot is the only non-contracted form with not that is written without a space (cf. *donot, *shouldnot, *hasnot, etc.)?

And what about this wo'n't business, anyway? Here is Carroll trying to stand on a leg he hasn't got:

Again, in ‘wo’n’t’, the first apostrophe is needed, because the word ‘would’ is here abridged into ‘wo’: but I hold it proper to spell ‘don’t’ with only one apostrophe, because the word ‘do’ is here complete.

Erm... no. The contracted form of would not is wouldn't (although I have certainly heard a shorter version, pronounced /wʊnt/, which could have been spelled won't, or perhaps woun't, but which in my experience isn't spelled at all); won't is short for will not.2 'Will not' is certainly what I mean when I write won't, and I'm pretty sure it's what Carroll meant when he wrote wo'n't, as in this passage from Sylvie and Bruno:

“That’s just what Sylvie says,” Bruno rejoined. “She says I wo’n’t learn my lessons. And I tells her, over and over, I ca’n’t learn ‘em. And what doos oo think she says? She says ‘It isn’t ca’n’t, it’s wo’n’t!’”

Surely this translates into "She says I will not learn my lessons," and so on, rather than "She says I would not learn my lessons." So we are left with a situation in which, orthographically speaking, ill is replaced by o; if Carroll found it advisable to flag this transmogrification by placing an apostrophe after the o, then it was his prerogative to exercise his taste and fancy as a speller, but at some point it becomes useless to appeal to logic and consistency in any argument about English orthography. For myself, I keep to the current (post-1725) conventions, not because I believe them to constitute the One True Way of the Apostrophe, but because I hold that the best place to put an apostrophe is wherever it will cause the educated reader the least consternation.3

1. The current rules for the use of the apostrophe in English are actually of rather recent origin; the OED, s.v. apostrophe (2), offers the following historical note:

In the [possessive] case, it originally marked merely the omission of e in writing, as in fox's, James's, and was equally common in the nominative plural, esp. of proper names and foreign words (as folio's = folioes); it was gradually disused in the latter, and extended to all possessives, even where e had not been previously written, as in man's, children's, conscience' sake. This was not yet established in 1725.

2. Historically, won't is short for woll not, and Carroll might have justified the additional apostrophe on those grounds. But if we start putting in apostrophes for historical deletions that have turned into synchronic suppletions, that takes us away from Carroll's ideal of punctuation based on logic rather than tradition.

3. Except, of course, when con'sternati'o'n i's the de'sired 'ef'fec't.


  • Rakish

    Recently I’ve been watching an Australian TV series called Rake. The title character, Cleaver Greene (played by Richard Roxburgh), is a…

  • A linguist in the land of logic puzzles

    I recently stumbled across the following story in an old file on my hard drive. Judging by the modification date on the file, I seem to have written…

  • Dutch as a bound variable

    What is either today's least surprising statistic or today's most surprising bound variable can be found at Dutch News.nl: The Netherlands has…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.