I've seen some oddly placed apostrophes in public places—who hasn't?—but never anything quite like this:
- Just one muffin? Is it really, really big? Did the cook get tired? Or quit? Is "muffin" now a mass noun?
- Why use two characters, the apostrophe and the t, when only one character, a d, is needed?
- Does this look vaguely Shakespearean? Maybe not—when Shakespeare used 't, he was forming a contraction with "it" (Love's Labours Lost, Act II: "Will you prick't with your eye?").
This sign has been bothering me since I first saw it more than a week ago. Botherment led to rumination about the English past tense, and rumination led to Googling. Here's what I learned:
From very early in the development of English, -ed was used to mark the past tense in weak (also known as "regular") verbs such as bake. By contrast, strong (irregular) verbs changed their vowel sounds— sing/sang/sung, for example. Dan Tobias writes:
Originally, the "-ed" suffix was pronounced as a separate syllable, but by Shakespeare's day it was commonly shortened to the modern form, and often spelled like "deceiv'd" to indicate this (and this pronunciation was denounced by linguistic purists of the day as sloppy).
Not Exactly Rocket Science informs us that:
In the Old English of Beowulf, seven different rules competed for governance of English verbs, and only about 75% followed the “-ed” rule. As the centuries ticked by, the irregular verbs became fewer and far between. With new additions to the lexicon taking on the standard regular form (‘googled’ and ‘emailed’), the irregulars face massive pressure to regularise and conform.
Today, some past-tense formations can take -t instead of, or in addition to, -ed. Consider dreamed/dreamt, leaped/leapt, burned/burnt. In these instances, the -t suffix is a marker of British English (BrE) spelling. But in others—slept, crept, kept—there is no -ed equivalent in American English (AmE). And in a few cases AmE uses one spelling for the verb form ("I burned the toast") and another for the adjective ("The carpet comes in the perfect shade of burnt orange").
Sometimes there's a little pronunciation confusion, too. The "baked" in "baked muffin" sounds like it ends in -t. But the "scrambled" in "scrambled eggs" ends with a -d sound. Yeah, go figure.
So here's my theory. I'm guessing that the muffin man (have you seen him?) is a bit spelling-challenged but knows something about phonetics. He was thinking "BrE past-tense suffix"—maybe he's from England, or a Commonwealth country; maybe he learned/learnt English by correspondence course—but when he wrote "Baket" it looked funny, like "basket" misspelled (or misspelt). So he thought, what the hell, let's throw in an apostrophe, because apostrophes are the Band-Aids of spelling. Aren't they?
But I'll entertain other theories. Hold forth!
Bonus link: The apostrophes of Canada, or Canastrophes.
Photo: Pergamino Cafe, Columbus Avenue at North Point, San Francisco.