Thursday, June 22, 2006

Eats, shoots and fucks

I yield to no-one in my respect for the English language.

In fact, I would go so far as to opine that the proper use of grammar is the fundamental basis of a civilised society. Like Lynne Truss I have a particular sensitivity to the correct use of apostrophes. That's because it usually only requires a little effort to understand how and where they should be applied. Bee's knees, for example when there's only one bee. Bees' knees when there's a swarm.

If I ever have a problem, a few repetitions of the word or phrase usually clearly signposts where the apostrophe should go. Yesterday, however, in this blog, I found myself in some difficulty with the phrase "For fuck's sakes". I tried a number of variations but none of them looked right. Indeed, I've been turning the phrase over and over in my head ever since. A number of people have commented on how preoccupied I looked.

At first I thought the problem was simply a grammatical one. If I slipped the phrase into a sentence the answer should be obvious. "For fucks' sake, stop picking your nose," for example, doesn't look too bad. Unfortunately, "For fuck sakes, put it away," looks equally correct. Or incorrect for that matter. In the end I decided it wasn't a problem of simple hermeneutics or syntax.

For a start I think the etymology of the phrase may come into this. I have a feeling, for example, that Americans usually say "For fuck sake, gimme the money" thus rendering redundant the need for an apostrophe altogether. Here in the North of Scotland, "For fucks sakes, gonna no dae that" is considered more acceptable usage. In this latter instance I have no idea where, if anywhere, the apostrophe should go.

In the end I suspect this is more of a problem of symantics rather than syntax. We need to work out the real meaning of the phrase, where it came from and how it developed, before we can correctly insert the apostrophe.

So, if there are any grammarians, or experts in syntax, synchronic linguistics, morphology, dialect or semantics out there who can help me with this most delicate problem I would really appreciate your help.

I simply can't risk embarrassing myself or my readers by employing faulty grammar any longer.


  1. You're right about Merkins dropping the possessive. Here it's about imaginative insertions and unexpected variations. One I heard in the Navy: "Fuck the fucking fucker who says fucking different."

    You're also right about apostrophes. "Jeez Bill, your nuts" is completely different than "Jeez Bill, you're nuts."

    Even if you are.

  2. Hm. You're right up to a point JTA. However, according to "The American Heritage Book of English Usage" your use of "different than" is questionable.

    I quote "The phrases different from and different than are both common in British and American English. The British also use the construction different to. Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. If you want to follow traditional guidelines, use from when the comparison is between two persons or things: My book is different from (not than) yours. Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was twenty years ago. You can use different from with a clause if the clause starts with a conjunction and so functions as a noun: The campus is different from how it was twenty years ago. 1
    Sometimes people interpret a simple noun phrase following different than as elliptical for a clause, which allows for a subtle distinction in meaning between the two constructions. How different this seems from Paris suggests that the object of comparison is the city of Paris itself, whereas How different this seems than Paris suggests that the object of comparison is something like “the way things were in Paris” or “what happened in Paris.”

    I rest my case.

  3. I must, I guess, throw myself at the mercy of the court. "Different from" is certainly better than supra, but we here don't really distinguish these things in non-formal speech. We're happy enough to get the words out at all.

    Actually, "different to" is making something of an advance, and it does seem to me to make more sense logically, but one has to be careful. It's not unlikely, in certain of the more questionable establishments, that someone will call one a pommy toff and smack one in the gob.

    The accusative "who," sadly, is also finding its way into decent usage, even Fowler (I understand--haven't checked because it makes my skin crawl) for much the same reason--a misplaced or mistimed "whom" can land you in the ER...

    All that said, I promise to watch it in future, and mind my pints and quarts.

  4. Your grovelling apology and total capitulation is gracefully accepted.

  5. We go on about all this stuff for ever at work, being an "international" magazine (authors from all over, particularly that argumentative lot from the USA ;-) ) and "OED English English" house style. So I'm not going to take a busman's holiday here.
    However, there is a blog called Bad Grammar which sounds right up both your streets, jta and Pundy:
    (sorry, unlike the talented Skint I can't do html codes in comments). The blogger and friends post pictures of signs where bad grammar has been used, give snippets etc. All v nerdy.

  6. PS there isn't a bit of procrastination going on here by any chance, is there?

  7. God damn it, I tried to leave it alone, but just couldn't. Went to find out the facts of the matter (actually, I was searching for loopholes) and discovered all style guides and usage manuals mising from my shelves except Strunk&White--and the bastards are on your side. They specify "from" for us Yanks, don't even mention "to," and utterly condemn "than." Well, nuts.

    Maxine, I can only imagine the fun you must have at work. I sit here with an OED behind me, Webster's 3rd International and American Heritage Unabridged to my left, the latter two also on my computer, and have been known to spend whole days paging through them trying to resolve some bit of arcana, usually without much success. But it is great fun, and getting paid for it would exceed my wildest dream. As for us argumentative cousins, I hope my grovelling and complete capitulation answers that charge somewhat. And fuck the fucking fucker who says fucking different.

  8. Hm. Whose nuts are we talking about here, jta. Mine or yours?

  9. Maxine, if there's one thing I'm renowned for it's that I never, ever procrastinate.

    Why? Because my mummy told me it would make me go blind, that's why.

  10. Oh don't give up now jta, this is just getting interesting!!

  11. And I'm sorry, ignorant numpty that I am, surely a Merkin is a pubic toupee!!!!!

  12. Quite right, Minx. A merkin is a pubic peruke, though it's hard to imagine why anyone would want one, or what need caused them to be invented in the first place. The proper noun, though, refers to that subspecies of humanity residing in the southern US, most notably Texas, specifically Crawford, where one is expected to show up for services in one's best attire, that is, with one's boots well scraped and one's itchy bits well and truly covered. Thus the confusion.

    But what does "gobby" mean?

  13. Gobby = something to say!

    'Peruke' - written and learnt by morning!

    What have you got aginst Crawford, itchy bits or no!

  14. Crawford is the home--the locus--of GW "Brushcutter" Bush, the first president--or presnint--of the US who can't pronounce the word "nuclear."

    Saints preserve us. There's someone knocking on my door...

  15. Guys, I'm creamy crackered, I just have to go to bed. Enjoy the rest of the party and don't forget to clean up after you.

    I'll just strap on my peruke in case it's chilly outside and I catch a testicular chill while waiting for the taxi.

    Oh, one last thing. This is so not like the rarefied literary blog I thought I was giving birth to all those weeks ago.

    Where, oh where, did it all go wrong?

  16. I knew that, the Dixie chicks told me so.
    Visitor's, at this hour jta, how unsociable.
    I have a very nice chateau du neuf paps if you would like to share.
    Where's Pundy, fallen off the sofa no doubt in a blaze of apostrophes - the fucker!

  17. Bollocks, where did you come from?. Whose blog is this antway?

  18. Merkins are for girlies Pundy, get it right, unless you happen to have indulged in the odd 'Brazilian' in the last few days.
    (Antway - wtf)

    Oh dear...

    'Boingggg', time for bed said Zebadee.

  19. Yes, tottering off in his mortarboard with his hickory switch at the ready, the upright grammarian slides to the horizontal.


    No visitors, only the thought police, but I told them nobody here has any of those and they left quietly. Envy your Chateauneuf--occasion? Or just taking good care of yourself? You make me want to hit the street...but there are no streets where I live, only roads and pasture. Guess I'll have to make do with the Jameson's...

  20. 'Night, all...

  21. Note to maxine on inserting links:

    your link:

    how to put it in a comment so it links properly, (replace the square brackets with the equivalent lees than and greater than signs - i.e. the diagonal brackets above the comma and full stop on the keyboard)

    [a href = ""]a link from maxine[/a] so it comes out like this:

    a link from maxine

    does this make sense?

  22. Hi skint

    I didn't know how to do that either. thanks for your help. from now on you're our IT guru.

  23. Skint, a voice of sanity in this of elevated, intellectual -- nay, cultural -- lunacy (can't find any of this lot in my style manual, anyway ;-) ). Will have a go at the links, I recognise the html code you give, so I think what I lack is confidence.

    jta: yes, I used to feel like you about my kind of job. I guess after 21 (nearly 22) years, it doesn't seem so glamorous any more.

  24. and if you want to make something bold you put [b] before the bit you want to make bold and [/b] after it

    italics is [i] before and [/i] after

    again change the square brackets to the deltas

    there's probably others too

    Now then class - here's an exercise for you

    reply to this comment using a link, and something in bold and something in italics and something in both bold and italics

  25. Hey, skint, you weren't a teacher in a previous life by any chance?

    I'll have a go as soon as I get a chance. Haven't sat an exam for ten years or more.