Re: apostrophes

From: Guy Steele (
Date: Thu Jun 01 2006 - 13:39:23 CDT

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    On Jun 1, 2006, at 12:16 PM, philip chastney wrote:

    > --- "Jukka K. Korpela" <> wrote:
    >> I have never seen any norm or recommendation
    >> on it for any language. Even for _simple_ nesting,
    >> i.e. for a quotation inside a quotation, reliable
    >> information is hard to find.
    > the rules for English are simply a matter of practice,
    > following "rules" established by Victorian grammarians
    > a friend of mine (a student of the language, as opposed to
    > the literature) would occasionally rant about the "damage"
    > (her term) done to the language by these narrow-minded,
    > misguided rule makers
    > in particular, she would cite --
    > (i) the use of quotation marks for reported speeach
    > (ii) the use of the apostrophe for the genitive (e.g,
    > "Jucca's", but "James'" not "James's", and not "hi's" or
    > "her's")
    > (iii) the suggestion that "it is I" is somehow more correct
    > than "it is me"
    > there are no absolute rules, only established practice --
    > you are free to invent your own rules (as with the Chicago
    > Manual of Style, for instance), and the rest of us are free
    > to adopt, adapt or ignore them -- these things only become
    > important when a sentence is ambiguous, or it conveys an
    > unintended meaning (as in "this plane will be airborne
    > momentarily")
    > the rule I was taught at school was something like "it
    > helps if you use different quoatation marks when quoting
    > within quotes" but no definition of primary or secondary
    > marks was mandated
    > I was also told that the quotation marks should enclose
    > _both_ the initial capital letter and the final full stop,
    > or _neither_, which is, I believe, at variance with the
    > Chicago Manual of Style
    > all in all, I doubt whether the way a writer (of English)
    > uses quotation marks is any sort of indicator of anything
    > much
    > Jane Austen never used a quotation mark in her life, and
    > I've never known anyone criticize her for it
    > regards . . . /phil

    This is all true as far as it goes. Yes, different people can
    make different sets of rules, and you can choose to follow
    rules or ignore them---but you have not really addressed
    the question of weighing the value of the freedom to ignore
    rules against the value of the freedom (!) to follow them.

    In this the "rules" of punctuation are very much like bidding
    conventions in the card game called "contract bridge".
    Now bridge does have laws: if you bid out of turn, or bid
    "peanut butter" rather than "four spades", you simply are
    not playing bridge at all. But it also has conventions:
    under the laws of bridge, you are free to open the bidding
    with "two notrump" no matter what cards you hold, but if
    your hand has no aces or kings, your partner most likely
    will be very confused. Different partnerships use different
    conventions, but a partnership that agrees on a set of conventions
    will be able to communicate with each other much more accurately,
    and much more economically, about what cards they hold than
    partners who do not.

    When writing in English, I freely choose to follow the rules in
    Chicago for most purposes because I know it will allow me to
    communicate much more accurately to a wide readership about
    things I care about. Such readers I regard as my partners.
    Chicago is not the only possible set of rules to follow, but it has
    the advantage of being comprehensively documented, readily
    available, and widely adhered to. One might say exactly the
    same of Unicode.

    When I write poetry (and, yes, I have been published in poetry
    journals), I may well choose NOT to follow Chicago when there is
    some overriding purpose.

    Jane Austen apparently chose to write in such a way that
    distinguishing multiple levels of quotation accurately was not
    often crucial to what she was trying to communicate, and
    I have no criticism of that choice. However, Lewis Carroll
    chose to write quite cleverly about such things, and certain
    passages in _Alice in Wonderland_ would have been much harder
    to read (or perhaps even to conceive of writing!) without good
    conventions for distinguishing levels of quotation.

    I might have found your missive somewhat easier to read had you
    taken the trouble to delimit the starts and ends of your sentences
    in conventional fashion. You did succeed in communicating,
    but only because I chose to expend the extra effort required
    to compensate for your lack of effort. Next time I may not bother.
    You may not care. You have a choice.

       Guy Steele

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