You know what an apostrophe is. It’s the little squiggle above the baseline in don’t and it’s that substitutes for a missing letter (o and i, respectively). Or it’s the little squiggle that denotes possession, because there is in fact a missing letter in those words: In Chaucer’s time, genitives (the linguistic term for what we casually call possessives) were formed by inserting an e before the s (the doges bone). We get apostrophe from Greek, with stops in Latin and French; the original form means “avert, turn away,” which is why we also use apostrophe for the rhetorical device of “turning away” to briefly address some person or thing—as one often does, say, on Twitter.
And speaking of Twitter, here’s what an apostrophe is not: It’s not a hyphen.
Just staring at this pic.twitter.com/WjIjOAzICb— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) September 27, 2019
Most people who write for public consumption would take note of the squiggly red line that auto-materializes under discribing and seek a remedy. That is not, however, the course habitually charted by the Misspeller-in-Chief. Besides, writes linguist John McWhorter in The Atlantic, there’s a bigger problem:
More egregiously, Trump may think liddle is somehow short for little, a word of precisely the same length. He also doesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe. At least, he isn’t clear enough on it to have caught the discrepancy upon seeing the tweet on his screen.
“Liddle’-gate,” as McWhorter dubs it, is “of a different order” from previous Trumpian slurs (“Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary”) and eccentricities of written communication (the odd capitalization; the covfefe):
Anyone who thinks the way to write little is liddle' reveals themselves as having lived a life at a great distance from the printed word, alarming in someone running a nation. Here is the man who refuses to read briefings, even when sanded down to the level of basic instructions penned on a Magic Slate. Here is the man who pulled that splendid bit about the British threatening our airports during the Revolutionary War, suggesting he had trouble reading the teleprompter, likely because he is too vain to use visual aids. But if he’s nearsighted and won’t wear glasses or contacts at 73, this all but bars him from print much smaller than the HOLLYWOOD sign.
McWhorter concludes: “Trump is a president of the United States whose linguistic life is as oral as that of a medieval artisan.” And not, shall we say, in a good way.
And because he sees only perfection in his handiwork, he gleefully doubles down.
Cacographer's apostrophe? https://t.co/Ymp6CsPDTl— Edward Banatt (@ArmaVirumque) September 29, 2019
[For more on cacography, see my February 28 post.]
It is entirely possible, even likely, that the current occupant of the White House is no different from the many Americans who don’t know their apostrophes from their colons. Once upon a time, however, we looked to our elected officials—and to experts of all stripes—to, you know, set a good example.
Here’s Ben Yagoda, a much-published author and former professor of English and journalism—an expert, in other words— patiently explaining the role of the apostrophe in words like li’l. Be sure to read the whole thread, compiled in chronological order here, and especially the final tweet.
Time for some close reading. It has long been customary to use an apostrophe to indicate omission of a letter, as in “don’t” or “ma’am” A single apostrophe is sometimes used to stand for multiple omitted letters, as in ‘em for them. /1— Ben Yagoda (@byagoda) September 29, 2019