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Grammar Girl - U and Non-U
by Rose Thorne

T0 BEGIN WITH, LET'S ADMIT that "correct" spelling is arbitrary, factitious, even illogical. But there it is. So are many other social customs that people care deeply about -- and surely the use of language is the most social of all possible customs. Of course, spelling is important for practical reasons: if you ignore the conventions of language, the communication of exact meanings becomes impossible. Misspelling can obscure your best intentions. If you write discrete instead of discreet, for example, who is to know what you mean'?

But that's not the real reason why spelling matters. As every fanatic knows, it matters for aesthetic reasons. Words can look right or wrong; they are formed by accretion and adaptation; they are shapes that time has established, that centuries of use have polished. Take the word desiccate. Not a soft or pretty word, but it has its dignity, with its green Anglo-Saxon ivy climbing and draping over the old Roman stones of the word siccus (dry). If you spell I it dessicate, as so many unfortunately do, you set history aside and reduce its Latin stones to a heap of dishonoured rubble.

There. Now may I be petty? (One of the good things about writing a column like this is that it frees you to be petty on a really grand scale.) A while ago the Globe and Mail decided that they would use Oxford spelling, British style, rather than the Webster Americana favoured by so many other Canadian publications. Terrific -- but why are they sprinkling all those extra u's through their pages?

Glamourous'? humourous? squalour, for God's sake. Have they ever looked into an Oxford dictionary? Yes, the OED spells colour, humour, rigour, etc. with a u. But certain very common inflected forms of these nouns drop the u: humour becomes humorous; glamour, glamorous. I've seen letters to the editor of the Globe pointing this out. They print the letters, but nothing changes. Don't they get it?

THE PRINCE OF WALES, I HEAR, is alarmed by the degradation being visited upon the English language by those slipshod Americans. Well, here's a remarkable degradation that the English thought up all by themselves. I've seen it in print, in a biography of John Cleese, I've heard it on television, in a script for the police series "Inside the Line," and I've heard it thrown casually away by a man speaking on the radio. All sources are English (Charles, take note).

Call it degradation by embellishment. The dictionary says that one of the meanings of the verb to press is to urge, insist or thrust (something) upon a person, to plead with insistence, as in "I pressed her to stay" or "Don't press for an answer" -with examples from Cowper, Shakespeare, and De Quincey. Then, and I think this stage was chiefly North American, the verb must have begun to seem too short, because it suddenly became necessary to use pressure instead of press, as in "Are they pressuring you?" Then Britspeak carried it one syllable further: "Are they pressurizing you? I felt pressurized by their demands," etc. What's next? Maybe a loud bang, and the word will disappear completely.

APOSTROPHES GIVE MORE writers more trouble, it seems, than anything else -- where do they go, when are they not there, why does the wretched thing exist at all? Here are some recent misuses. This from the Toronto Star: "Diana says she buys her's at Pupo's"; and from the Globe and Mail (in a photo caption) "Keat's house in Hampstead." The first, her's, is a not so common variation on the it' s / its confusion. Hers is a possessive pronoun and like other possessive pronouns (ours, theirs, yours, whose, its) it has no apostrophe. It's is a contraction of it is, or it has. Do not write her's unless you are creating dialogue for language louts, as in "Me and her's good buddies."

The "Keat's house" problem is a little weirder. The poet's name is Keats, and the possessive form is correctly written, and pronounced, Keats's. (There is controversy about this. Some would say the correct form is Keats', but my two favourite style guides, Oxford English and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, both agree with me. In fact, in Strunk and White it's Rule 1.) The rule is: add 's to form the possessive singular, even in nouns that end in s (or z or x).

That's the singular. If the word ends in s because it's a plural it requires only an apostrophe -- cats' eyes, for example. You may think I'm tediously belabouring the obvious, but some people get hold of the idea that you must add 's to everything and they start putting it on plurals. You get "the Blue Jays's second World Series" and the like. I'm not fooling, I've seen it.

This is not the end of what there is to say about the possessive. More to come.

LAST AND LEAST. DO NOT write alot. There is no such word. I had just about got used to always having to tear apart these two small but sticky syllables when they sprang alittle on me. Don't write that either.

Rose Thorne is the pseudonym of a Toronto editor and writer.


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