Re: Common Errors in English

Subject: Re: Common Errors in English
From: "Mark Baker" <listsub -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2004 16:34:44 -0500

Mark L. Levinson wrote

> One writes "nine years' experience" not because of Latin
> or because of arcane grammatical rules, but because of
> how English works.

That's one theory of how English works. This theory is that English has a
genitive case, which is derivation from Latin grammar. However, in this case
the result of applying the theory looks odd to many people and it seems that
the majority do not actually write English this way. So if it looks odd and
the majority don't do it, which one is wrong, the theory or the common

> You can't hear the apostrophe in
> the plural when you speak, but it's obvious if you think
> of the singular: a week's experience, not a week experience.

This is argument by extension from one construction to another again. And
the simple fact of the matter is that English constructions are both
irregular and fluid. And notice the irregularity that exists here quite
apart from question of the apostrophe. In the plural case, the apostrophe
(if used) is indicating the absence of the word "of". In the singular case
the "s" sound has been introduced in place of the word "of". If you want
perfect consistency between forms then it should be:

Five weeks of experience --> Five weeks' experience.
One week of experience --> One week' experience.

Or, alternately:

Five weeks of experience --> Five weeks's experience.
One week of experience --> One week's experience.

There is variation between the plural and singular forms on the role of the
"s", so why should there not be a similar variation on the role of the
apostrophe? In the singular case, the apostrophe does a real job by
indicating that "week" is not plural. In the plural case it just doesn't do
anything useful.

There is enormous variation in the written form of the language as to when
and how putatively missing words or sounds are indicated, and the trend over
time seems to be to drop those that serve no obvious purpose.

It would certainly be easier if English was more regular than it is, but it
isn't. Attempting to force unnatural constructions on people in the name of
regularity is a mug's game. It usually makes common usage worse, not better,
as people apply misunderstood rules incorrectly.

Of course, sometimes these mistakes actually become mainstream, as in the
ubiquitous grocer's comma or "Tom sent a letter to Bill and I." Then the
misguided effort to create regularity actually serves to make the language
less regular.


Re: Common Errors in English: From: Mark L. Levinson

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