Trivia Teaser

Who sang "Little Red Corvette"?

Michael Jackson
Van Morrison
Phil Collins



By Miranda

Don't you love all those indignant letters to the newspaper about misplaced, or misused, apostrophes?

It's easy to sneer at the greengrocer (now there's a word that's appearing less and less often as we derive most of our fresh produce from the supermarket) who labels the fruit Orange's and Lemon's so that we all chorus WHAT BELONGS to the Oranges and Lemons?

But is this fair? Why does the English language use the same symbol, the apostrophe, to convey two different things, possession and 'the bits left out'?

And why does the letter S indicate the plural, the third person singular of a verb AND the possessive.

It's hard enough for people who grew up with the language to get right, let alone the complications for people learning it, particularly if their native tongue was one where plurals are conveyed by context and so there isn't a convenient, if, in the case of English, ambiguous, text marker such as our S/ES forms.

And, yes, English does this too. FISH, for example (continuing up the next aisle) is both singular and plural and you'd expect to see a collective MILK sign in the dairy section rather than MILKS though, given the variety of high-calcium, low-fat or whatever products, the plural form could be justifiable. Or would the sign MILKS indicate a demonstration, much needed in the city, of exactly how the product is extracted from a sheep, goat or cow.

I go through the supermarket wondering if, in order to avoid error, there's been a conscious decision to use collective or singular word forms in the signage - FLOUR, VEGETABLE OIL, MEAT, BREAKFAST CEREAL, DETERGENT etc. - and whether, over time and with the assistance of text-speak on mobile or cell phones, we may end up with no plural markers at all.

Do you think it would matter?


21 Responses to


September 02, 2010 at 6:44 PM

I hvae been shwon rectenly taht if the frist and last lteters of a wrod are crrocet, one can sitll read it. So I guess correct spelling is a matter of choice?

JOYCEY said:
September 02, 2010 at 8:07 PM

It's a very interesting argument Miranda, but as a former Private Secretary - many years ago mind you - my ability to use correct (at that time) spelling and punctuation was paramount. It is very hard to lose that habit and succumb to what is the norm these days. mY JOB DEPENDED ON IT!!

rhve said:
September 02, 2010 at 9:28 PM

I don't think it's any harder than learning French where the last letters of most words are silent and everything has a gender assigned to it by some system I've never figured out since you can have two words for the same thing - one is male and the other female. About the apostrophe, once upon a time we would have said "the greengrocer his fruit" so "the greengrocer's fruit" indicates both the possessive and "the bits left out". You can still come across the longer version if you read old enough books.

kragzy said:
September 05, 2010 at 1:56 PM

There are lots of examples of words that appear to be singular but also carry the plural meaning. I can only think of one word that appears to be plural that also caries the singular meaning: premises, meaning a parcel of land and the buildings on it. It seems that we're beginning to feel unconfortable with this as I received a form from my electricity company recently asking me to fill in "address of premise". The premise(!) of the request was that premises is only a plural word, which is incorrect.

gm1951 said:
September 06, 2010 at 2:02 PM

Sorry, but when I was at school we lost half a mark for incorrect spelling. That's probably why baby boomers are good spellers. When my son was at school, I had to correct his teacher's spelling in a comprehension he was given. If teachers & parents can't spell, how can the kids? To me, good spelling & grammar are a must. I can't abide bad spelling & the worst offenders seem to be journalists. I also can't understand why, with spellcheck & all the other tools available on computers, classified ads (the worst being real estate ads) are not spell-checked & corrected before they go to print...I am sick of reading "dinning room", "acerage" & "tilled".

September 06, 2010 at 2:18 PM

Oooh gm1951 - I hear you! Real estate ads [shudder]...

kragzy said:
September 07, 2010 at 9:31 AM

I'm with you gm1951. And if your name indicates your year of birth, I'm with you on that one too - the baby boomer's best year! Poor spelling and grammar, whatever they claim in the weird disconnected land of pedagogia, leads to quiet derision (and sometimes not so quiet). My four children, now in their 20s and 30s, have discovered that credibility and achievement depend on being able to express themselves well, both orally and in writing. They are, at last, thankful for having a dad who continually corrected and guided them in their use of our wonderful language. And you're right about journalists - I heard one in conversation recently on the ABC say, "Me and John went to...". Arrrgh! Words are a journalist's stock in trade. A journalist who can't use words properly is like a carpenter who can't work with wood.

sherbet said:
September 07, 2010 at 11:35 AM

You are right of course. But in the scheme of things I don't think that I'll worry about it too much.

lynn60 said:
September 07, 2010 at 12:06 PM

All I can say is thank goodness for predictive text on mobile phones, I find text language hard to do and follow!

rhve said:
September 07, 2010 at 1:03 PM

Kragzy I agree with you. Journalists and media hosts are in our faces such a lot of the time that it is difficult not to let their poor use of language rub off on the rest of us. Children, especially, think that if they hear it on TV or radio it must be correct.

yow1e said:
September 08, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Est not only the lack of education which our journalist's love to wallow in, but also it is the americanization of our language which is shoved down our children's throats [through the media] as entertainment. At primary school (I was born in 1951) grammar included not only subject; predicate and cupola, but also the teaching of both sentence construction and pronunciation. At high school it was prerequisite that journalist's sit for their HSC with a high mark in english grammar. Despite that how many high school students [today] are taught how to construct sentences with the substituted-integration of either latin or foreign words. Or for that matter how to construct an amphiboly, or to construct a conjunctive clause within a conjunctive clause. That education was essential [in my day], because of spoken class debates. Today's education is only fit for a marshmallow, not a human being. If they (the power's that be) removed calculators and computers from primary school, then maybe it would be a different matter, because those electronic devices only reduce a child's degree of imagination, not otherwise, and as imagination is essential for knowledge, then it is self explanatory that a child's degree of learning is going to be reduced, because of those electronic devices.

September 08, 2010 at 12:52 PM

Punctuation saves lives! I am sure this is not news to any of you here, but take the following as examples:- 'Let's eat Grandma' as opposed to 'Let's eat, Grandma'. It takes very little effort, and less time, to get it right. A hilarious book on the subject is Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. ISBN 1 86197 6127. Published in 2003 by Profile Books.

September 08, 2010 at 3:51 PM

I am sorry to disagree with the bulk of you. I am obviously older than you, so I guess I should be touting grammar and correct spelling, but I have found that neither of them are necessary for intelligence. My grandchildren are extremely intelligent. Especially my 9 year old. He never had the least interest in children's books. I had to read from encyclopedias, and naturalist type books when I babysat. He uses computers regularly, not only to play games, and if I need help on how to use one, he helps me. Knowledge of perfect spelling and grammar are now almost irrelevant. If you don't believe me, look up at the previous comment of mine. And now I cannot resist one more comment. That book title that bonniebluegum refers to, is actually a misquotation of an old Danny Kay joke about a creature that "eats roots shoots and leaves". And I will not explain. I told you I am old.

LOBONZ said:
September 09, 2010 at 8:58 AM

Get real people, the English has been evolving from the day it was invented

kragzy said:
September 09, 2010 at 9:45 AM

Interesting... people who love to play word games (which depend for their existence on established meanings and spellings) are saying that established meanings and spellings have no value. Itza phunnie whirld.

September 09, 2010 at 11:01 AM

kragsy, have you read some of the books by English authors of say 50, 100, and even 500 years ago? Totally different idioms, and in the older books, even spelling and grammar.

September 12, 2010 at 3:02 PM

Liesl as you have commented on my post I feel I should reply and given that you do not feel that punctuation is important I have not used any and I trust that it will make no difference to your understanding of my post dont be sorry to disagree the post was designed to generate opinions on the subject I am sure Ms Truss was well aware of the Danny Kaye joke to which you refer it has become quite a well known and much trotted out joke over the years however I suspect Ms Truss has simply removed the offending portion of the joke to ensure that her book has more widespread appeal and does not itself offend I am sure your grandchildren are extremely intelligent and I can share your delight when you say your 9 year old grandson fixes your computer problems I well remember my children fixing my computer problems when they were 4 years old they are now teenagers and take a degree of pride in making their written word easy to understand for they believe that if it is worth writing then it is worth taking the time to apply the odd comma here and there to infuse meaning colour and rhythm to the text finally if I may be so bold as to reply to your comment to Kragsy about the evolution of our language can I suggest that he was well aware of it when he wrote his last sentence and perhaps he wrote it for that very reason best wishes and thanks to the YP team for raising such a great topic for discussion

kragzy said:
September 13, 2010 at 11:09 AM

Hi Liesl. Yes, I have and do read many books by authors from centuries past. The rich and artful expression is a joy to absorb. I have no problem with the upward development of language: new words and nuances of meaning are an essential part of its living nature (and makes for interesting crosswords!). What concerns me is not the development of language but its degradation. There seems to be a growing desire to dumb-down our language. Rather than admiration of artisanship and beauty, the aim these days is mediocrity. In order to access mass-markets, advertisers and television writers write for the lowest common denominator, and these have become the standards for society. Notwithstanding the intelligence of our grandchildren (mine continue to astound me too), their minds will wither when they face the social pressure to dumb-down their speech. My 8y/o grand-daughter reads adult books and can express herself beautifully in well-constructed sentences. When she did so recently at school, she was asked by her teacher to speak more simply. Yes, by her teacher - the very person who is entrusted with the task of instilling a love of learning and aspiration to higher ideals. Rather than being commended for artful expression, she was criticised. This is not an isolated incident. Dig deeper into your grandchildren’s experiences at school and you will discover that the pursuit of mediocrity is endemic, especially in Anglo-Euro sub-cultures. When the University admissions are published early next year, check the common ethnicity of high achievers compared to those who aspire to mediocrity. I am not a cranky old man who wants nothing to change. Rather I am genuinely concerned that change should be upward, not downward, for all sectors of society. Sorry if these words sound too strong; my own language skills are not all they could be! Cheers.

LSBruce said:
November 29, 2010 at 5:27 AM

I used to complain that a 16 year old friend of mine used to write me long letters with no punctuation at all making them very hard to understand so, I told her, just put a comma where you would pause for breath. Her next letter was 3 pages long with a comma on the second page! Yes, punctuation is helpful but one shouldn't be too pedantic about it. I don't know if you Aussies can get StumbleUpon videos but, if you can, there's an excellent one about the use/misuse of language entitled "Stephen Fry - Kinetic Typography, Language". Very funny.

November 29, 2010 at 3:06 PM

OH YES! That's brilliant! DO go to YouTube and watch and listen to Stephen Fry. Here's the link - copy and paste if it doesn't link from here. I loved it. Miranda, you'd enjoy it, I'm sure.



Miranda said:
November 30, 2010 at 8:03 AM

Oh, thank you, LSBRUCE! I love Stephen Fry's work but I hadn't come across this one before. Thanks for the link, Beuregarde. It's made my day!