For example

Still mulling about how language changes and whether or not I agree with Emerson:

“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Well, maybe not the tropes’ poetic origin but the words’ cultural origin. Their social origins, because language is inherent in human culture–we must communicate to survive. And if that means language includes words with violent origins or male hierarchical origins or race supremacist origins or nationalistic origins, the words cannot so easily be erased. We use them as they are, regardless of their nasty backgrounds, tropes and metaphors and all. An accretion of meanings alters the words as cultures evolve and change.

That doesn’t mean we should not critique or examine our words.

In a decade or two, terms change. Jargon, technology, politics, culture all exert forces on how we say what we mean. Here’s an example from my own experience as a creative writer. I wrote a poem in 1983 (published in a journal I cannot at the moment recall), a poem about yearning, in which the speaker observes a male-bodied person who dresses as a female. In 1983, the most respectful word to use for such a person was “transvestite.” Hence the title I chose for the poem: “Transvestite on the Long Island Ferry, July.”

Perhaps the person in the poem was not transvestite but transgender (though that was very rare in 1983)–or “gender-fluid.” In my poem, the observer/speaker uses the pronoun “she.” The observer can only speculate and does so on the speaker’s terms. Without the word transvestite in the title, the poem could be more generally understood–as, say, an older speaker watching a young female.

As the writer of this poem, I’m not going to revise its terminology; but I might change the title if I were ever publish it in a collection (this poem, nearly 40 years past its composition, has not appeared in any of my books). Given that, here it is–with a change in title and nothing else. What do readers think?

~~

On the Long Island Ferry, July
 
She leans against the deck rail,
  her red dress an amaryllis
    in a khaki sea.
 
I notice she is unfamiliar with the problem
  of holding a dress down over her backside
    while keeping the wide white sunhat in place—
 
and what to do with the matching bag?
  That kind of awkwardness
    marks her as an amateur.
 
I think, she wants womanliness
  like in the movies—
    La Dolce Vita, maybe—
 
she hasn’t learned, yet, about women.
  I could laugh at her impression,
    but I understand her longing.
 
She stays at the rail, struggling to enjoy flirtation,
  the barfly wind pestering her relentlessly,
    Hey honey, wanna go out?
 
Boozy breezes disarrange her hair,
  grab at her panties,
    try steering her to a quiet corner.
 
But she stays put. I sympathize with her need
  to drink in the restless waters of the Sound,
    feeling new in her body: bright, swirling, real.
 
I watch her from Bridgeport to Long Island
  with a kind of envy, unable to recall
    the last time I longed for anything so completely.
 
 

~~

Concerning the apostrophe

I am not the sort of English enthusiast who makes a habit of ranting over bad grammar. I often feel annoyed at egregious errors; occasionally I go as far as to say “it drives me crazy when (insert common grammar mistake here),” but I understand that living languages change. Evolution is not just for finches, and stasis  cannot be maintained in a complex system of human communication when technology and society and culture constantly create and destroy not only our environments but our methods of communication. Communication takes many forms and reflects the influences of many stresses, common usage being foremost among them.

Common usage may be verbally-based or textually-based or may depend upon references to popular culture or recent history, and it alters language whether we want it to or not. This fluid, flexible aspect of language fascinates me. As a poet, I relish it. As a teacher, I have to allow for compromise now and then.

I am willing to predict, for example, that very soon the accepted pronoun for words such as everyone and anybody is likely to be “they.” The reference was acceptable to Jane Austen and her writing peers, then went out of fashion in the Victorian era, when “he” became the norm–the word “he” is singular, as anyone is; thereafter, educated writers and orators used “he” for the nonspecific singular antecedent.

Of course, such use omits half of the population. Non-gender-specific writing employs “he or she” as the correct pronoun for words like someone. That usage leads to many a tortuous sentence, however. I generally advise my students to change the antecedent noun to a plural form whenever possible and to keep “they” as the pronoun; yet almost all newspapers, many news journals, popular magazines, and certainly most of whatever text appears on the web now employs the pronoun “they” for nonspecific antecedents. I don’t really have a problem with that–Jane Austen was able to make it clear enough whom it was she meant by “they.” Clarity’s what matters.

I do have a beef with the misuse of apostrophes, though. The apostrophe I’m talking about is a punctuation mark, not the poetic apostrophe which addresses someone or something absent or metaphorical. I mean the little superscript mark  that is used for two main reasons:

1. To note an elision (the omission of letters)

2. To indicate the possessive case (barring the silly exceptions hers, theirs, ours, yours and its)

I understand the why behind a noticeable uptick in the number of times apostrophes go missing these days: texting, tweeting, and other shortcuts employed in social media communication. My students are vague about the comparatively simple rules of when to use the apostrophe largely because they never bother using it when they text one another. Furthermore, their customary “proofreader,” SpellCheck, doesn’t always alert its users to this type of error. Computer programs can recognize that dont is not a word, but cant means “sanctimonious talk” or, alternately, a tilt or slope (says Merriam Webster). It is a useful word, but it is not the elision for the word cannot. Furthermore, SpellCheck won’t (elision for will not; wont means habit or custom) be able to correct the typist who uses the wrong form of your/you’re or its/it’s.

Irksome, yes. But most mystifying to me has been the ridiculously frequent use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural. Surely no one is teaching our second graders to pluralize by adding ‘s to the end of a word. (Teachers who do so should have their certifications revoked!) Recently, when working with a student, I learned one reason this mistake crops up so often in my students’ papers: AutoCorrect. When the typist gets sloppy and tries to add an s to a word that takes a different ending for the plural form (puppy, puppies), AutoCorrect defaults to possessive case. The computer is too dumb to detect the difference, because this is English, and English is damned difficult.

I suppose another reason may be character limits for tweets and texts, but that seems less likely. If people don’t bother to use the apostrophe for elisions, why bother for plurals? “Susie got 2 puppys” conveys the same information just as incorrectly.

Proper use of the apostrophe in English is actually pretty simple–even though computer programs cannot quite figure out the two rules above–and clears up a host of potential ambiguities and misunderstandings. The world could benefit from communication that isn’t studded with misunderstandings.

The warning below is one I use with my students. Sometimes, it even has the effect of becoming a useful reminder. Many thanks to the anonymous teacher who posted it on someecards.com.

puppy dies•NOTE  [Alas, just to complicate things, some editorial styles use the apostrophe to indicate plurals, but ONLY for letters or numbers, as in: “There are four 6’s in this statistical table.”]