APOSTROPHIC GENDER BIAS?

English teachers at every level, from pre-k to doctorate, watch with dismay (too weak! Horror?) as the apostrophe goes the way of the –whatever endangered species you are currently supporting with a tax-credited contribution.

 The poor mark causes such confusion that some (http://www.killtheapostrophe.com/; http://grammar.about.com/b/2007/05/31/the-campaign-to-abolish-the-apostrophe.htm)   have suggested that it be eliminated entirely to avoid chaos and, dare I say, guilt. Common eruptions of both arise when one is forced to make a plural, e.g. “tomato’s” or “Honda’s.” Or perhaps when one has to indicate ownership, e.g. “it’s” or “their’s.” All of these are wrong.

 The simplest solution from the old school was memorization but I prefer explanation. Everyone within the sound/sight of my voice/text can avoid the problem of the apostrophe by remembering one simple fact:

— the apostrophe is a mark that stands in for/takes the place of one or more missing letters–

 Here is an example. If I want to show that Walter owns a car, I can write “Walter’s car.” The reason I can do this is that the apostrophe stands in for the letters “hi” in the word “his.” The complete un-apostrophed construction is “Walter his car.” Similarly, but on the surface, contradictorily to our notion that apostrophes always make possession clear, “it’s about time” doesn’t mean “it his about time” but “it IS about time.”

 So, for another example, if you want to talk about the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, you would write “the Constitution’s Second Amendment establishes the right to bear arms” and you would be really saying “the Constitution its Second Amendment….” Here the apostrophe stands in for the “it” in “its.”

 [The trick with apostrophes is to know what letters are being substituted for. That is why, for instance, making the plural of “Honda” by adding an apostrophe and an s makes no meaning—in the construction “seven Honda’s” nothing is being substituted for; something (the apostrophe) is just being added for no good reason.]

 But you may well ask, could it not be that “the Constitution’s” might be read as “the Constitution his,” with the apostrophe standing in for the “hi” in “his”? Well, no, since the Constitution has no gender.  Unlike nouns in other Western languages, English nouns don’t carry formal gender identities. We use pronouns: “he,” “she,” “it” when we want to do that. The assignment is usually pretty arbitrary. But with apostrophes you can only choose between the male gender and the ungendered: “his” or “its”—never “her.” You can’t write “Linda’r car” and expect folks to understand you mean “Linda her car.”

 So, what’s (what is) up with that? Who OK’d (OKed) this gendered decision? No one knows, it seems, and aside from your reporter here, no one has much considered it. But it is, nevertheless, the case that English denies, in grammar, the capacity of female nouns to show possession except in the presence of a male construction.

 Here is my proposition: I think the historicized basis for this rule should be pretty clear. It was not until the 19th-cetury in English speaking countries that women could inherit property exclusive of male oversight, either by male relative or guardian. See, for example, the struggle over inheritance in “Downton Abbey” as Lady Mary’s share of the estate is seems up for grabs. By the time this situation was changed by the Married Women’s (ironic!) Property Act of 1870 [except for the peerage], the grammar rules covering the use of the apostrophe were long since fixed.

 Therefore, what we have is a grammar “rule “ (unlike the French, we have no academy that codifies such rules; we are fundamentally usage-driven speakers and writers in English) that reflects the condition of women under property law when the usage began to evolve, sometime prior to the 14th century.

 I’ll (I will) close now as my wife’r (wife her) desire to be on time at a brunch overrides my (and your, not “you’re”) all-consuming interest in this topic.

FOR THE SNOWSTORM JANUARY 21 2014

Here are two sonnets I posted earlier today to Facebook. I like them. They were written over forty years ago, when I was a graduate student. I told myself that winter that I would try out the sonnet. I saved ten of the twenty two I drafted and then kept four. These are two.

 

From WINTER SONNETS

2

I have not walked on whiter days
Nor felt the sun’s ice-blue presence so
As on this day. Winter, as though
To claim dominion, lays
Too firm fingers on my soul
And all his nature’s strength
Invades my world; the length 
And depth of myself feels cold
And memory whispers images of past
Warnings, how winter’s gentle alarms
Sighed disaster, the cool arms
Of his messenger taking me at last.
How quiet a turn–the sun’s pale presence after winter rain,
The sharpening of summer loves into winter’s pain.

10
Winter dusk, in waves of grey despair,
Engulfs the world. White ices grown brown
And dead give off muddy clouds in the heavy air;
Black trees, dried grasses all broken down
Around themselves, an evergreen
Turns rusting red along its tips.
Back down cold hostile alleys once clean,
Now ragged with the husks of frozen rotted scraps, slip
Thin yellow ugly dogs with half-icy sores.
Their bleeding feet leave sign for other beasts
That come on winter nights to sniff such spoor,
To lick the rotting ice, to feast.
We cling at this late hour to the myth of day
But fear that winter’s night will have the final say.

 

 

ANOTHER VERSION UNTOLD—YET

Funny how things happen, no? No sooner had I posted the introduction to my desire for a new version of part of the past, than the present and future caught up to me.

That is to say, the very next day two new projects appeared in my inbox that I can’t really turn down and, as these matters go, they require me to be responsible for my time to others. Then, too, I found myself avoiding the unpleasant (if I call myself a writer) evidence that I don’t really know how to tell the story I want to tell—an absence of technique, an inability to control tone, something.

Most problematic has been the problem of memoir’s effect on those involved in it. The issue is that although my wife told the story as she experienced it eight years ago in print, the idea of me writing about those days too painful for her even now. I’m not sure what I think about this kind of problem. I can understand an argument that holds that her writing was cathartic for her in difficult times (obviously true) but my writing is simply a reminder of those painful times. Her telling of the story her way serves to, if not erase, then mitigate the consequences of decisions I made, while my writing about those same decisions do not mitigate their consequences at all but are experienced as actions, as if saying what I did, and why, is the same as doing it all again.

Some of you have written to encourage me to keep going with my attempt; some of you praised my candor. I really appreciate those notes and so let me try to live up to their point: I am glad I don’t have to write this. Living it was hard and painful for many people I loved; for others, and for me, it was that but it was also liberating. Writers are supposed to know how to live with pain, to own it, as I have written before in this space, but I am not sure that the pain we cause others can or should be embraced or celebrated, even in pursuit of our own growth. Oh, in the abstract, as a matter of principle that we can sometimes pass off as necessity, yes; but not really in the lives of people we know and love.

Well, that’s it. I won’t write it. A friend of both of ours (maybe more a friend of mine, though she is very fond of Nan) has written saying she wants to write it. Maybe she will. I have no idea what she understands. If she does write the story, I’ll be interested to see what she thinks happened. Meanwhile, you can all go to Nan’s book for the most current version.

So, thank you and I hope I can keep up with this space while I get these other projects underway. If I skip a week, I know many if not most of you won’t really miss it, but if you do, just check back in from time to time. I’ll catch up.

ANOTHER VERSION

Version One: In June, 2002, after twenty-two years of marriage, I began dismantling it. Over the next two years, in fits and starts, I left my wife, alienated my children, and made most folks around me miserable; those that weren’t miserable were uncomfortable, to say the least. Then, in the spring of 2004, I came to my senses, left the young woman (37 years younger) for whom I had created this mess, and began a process of reconciliation with my wife that her best friends thought, I am sure, ill-conceived. This version is basically that described in my wife’s powerful essay, “Chapter Four You Break up: A Journal,” which she published in the book she edited in 2006, Cut Loose: (Mostly) Older Women Talk About the End of (Mostly) Long-Term Relationships (Rutgers University Press). I recommend that you get the book, not only for her essay but for the others therein.

Version Two: This version has yet to be written but will be pursued here. I undertake to do that because 2014 is the tenth year since my wife and I came together again after the events sketched out (somewhat one-sidedly) above. We have stayed together and it looks as though we will make it to the “natural” ends of things as we are both now in our seventies. I have wanted to give an account of those two difficult years from my perspective, not so much to correct “the record” (although some of that will be done) as to examine some assumptions and to give voice to experiences that have not, to my mind, found their way adequately before an audience.

 Preliminary: Before I start, I have to admit to some reluctance to take this on, for several reasons. One is that this blog has been considerably more personal already than I had intended it to be and I don’t want to seem self-indulgent or solipsistic. Another is that my wife’s essay is so well-written, so pitch-perfect in tone, and so painful (for me) to read, that I need to avoid any suggestion that I disagree with its fundamental evocations of loss and fear. How to write my own account with as much skill without seeming to be “answering” hers is daunting. And finally, I don’t know how much I want to say. I don’t want to open old arguments now long settled. I don’t want to force unwanted memories to the surface for my wife or my children (at least two of whom read this from time to time). Nevertheless, I want to try to do justice to those years, so let me begin, actually, near the end. One scene and then we will begin in earnest at the very beginning next time:

On the afternoon of March 9, 2004, Sue (a pseudonym) put the last of her things in the car she had borrowed from her brother. She took the comforter her mother had made for her to bring into our shared apartment and she took the new rice cooker. Except for a few books and clothes we had boxed up together, everything else had been taken away by her brother days ago, while I was at work. It was raining slightly, I think. Memory is tricky. Maybe it wasn’t raining; in literary studies we are told to beware the “pathetic fallacy,” that unfortunate tendency of the less-talented writer to make Nature respond to the protagonist’s emotional state. As a young student I was told to appreciate Flaubert if for no other reason than he made the sun shine and birds to sing at Emma Bovary’s funeral. Rain or no, we cried and then Sue left, as I had asked her to do. I never saw her again.