Tuesday, 18 December 2012

“What the Dickens?”, “What the Dickens'?” or “What the Dickens's?” - a Devilish Dilemma!

by John Owens (OP 1953-63)

Librarian Jo Godfree graced the Charles Dickens bi-centenary issue of Portsmouth Point with a harsh – though in the end, and pace Simon Callow, just about conciliatory – piece about  Dickens's verbal bullying called 'I HATE CD'. Richard Ingrams, Editor of The Oldie, had earlier included in his January 2012 issue Raymond Briggs's tongue-in-cheek diatribe against the same 'great writer' on account of the 'apoplectic opulence' of his descriptions of the greengrocer's seasonal produce in A Christmas Carol:

'There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts (sic), shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street … There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by …'

Rather than enter this debate, I refer the reader to my opening paragraph which contains the two genitives or possessive forms, “Dickens's” and “Briggs's”. Furthermore, allow me, as an Owens, to elect “Owens's” rather than “Owens'” as the preferred genitive form of my own name. Note too, in her fourth paragraph, Jo Godfree's airing of the variant “Dickens'” (that is, s-apostrophe rather than s-apostrophe-s) within five lines of the 'preferred' form “Dickens's” - preferred, that is, not just by me, who could be said to have a vested interest, but also by Professor Pointon in his fine essay (ibid.)on how myth becomes and stays history. 

As a revolting pedant I'm taking up the cudgels on behalf of the apostrophe – most abused and not the least significant of punctuation marks. I wouldn't, of course, place it in the same league as the paragraph in terms of the weight of meaning it might convey – nor, indeed, of the chapter break nor part opening, the big guns in the punctuation armoury. It doesn't, however, deserve the cavalier treatment meted out to it by writers of all types, shapes and sizes.

Matters came to a head in September as, en route from the Ardeche to Portsmouth, I used the Calais/Dover ferry crossing time to catch up on the said May issue of Portsmouth Point. Apostrophic abuse had been in my mind since I'd encountered in the Rhone Valley this astonishing piece of officialese:

Our French scribe lent 'water' the apostrophe saved in translation from “l'eau”, endowed 'bathing' with a double helping of '-ing' (in passinging, as it were) and gave us in “n't” an entirely new form of 'not', without which we have somehow muddled along for centuries (or century's as literary libertarian's might prefer to expres's it).

Next moment, looking up from the page, I saw a notice from ferry operator DFDS, kindly informing me about drivers' habits in their ships:

I don't know where they were doing it, but lounging was clearly what they were about! For sure, they were not in the Children's Playroom whose apostrophe obeyed all known rules for this irregular plural form:

Later, cruising down the A3 dual carriageway just north of Guildford, I dodged serendipitously on to the old A3 to avoid a traffic hold-up, only to find some hundreds of fellow-motorists had had the same idea. Right there in front of me in the jam was :

'Something wrong here,' I thought, reading first the upper legend on the tank-like contraption. Just check the registration and – sure enough – the Event Toileting Contractor, as I believe these professionals class themselves, was undeniably down his leg apostrophe-wise. For all its faults, the DVLC positively eschews apostrophes in its registration numbers, so no mistake in its rendering of the plural form of 'DO', though I'd take issue with its spelling of LOOS as LDO5.

OK, some of you might point out that there's more to English usage than punctuation, and I couldn't agree more. The other half of the picture is the words, but here again the casual scribe can set up all kinds of confusion in the mind of his/her reader. Take the 'flash' across the top right-hand corner of the front cover of the Dickens issue of Portsmouth Point: 'GREAT EXPECTATIONS ISSUE' -  whence, would you say, and might we not be told? Or take a closer look at the inside front cover which kicks off with


There's a hint as to meaning here in the listing below of the articles appearing in the magazine. Otherwise we could be learning that 'POMPEY'S DRAW PLEASES CROWD'. Might the Editors be toyinging with us, I ask myself? Look no further than the foot of the Editorial on page 3: 'The Editors May' – but then again they may not.

Let's give the Headmaster the last word, or rather the last apostrophe. His 'Dickens and the Sea' article gives us “Charles's son Sydney” as early as line 3 – he's a right-thinking* 's-apostrophe-s' man! Or is he? What's this in line 4, “...the Dickens' family...”? Surely not! Just a minute, maybe it's a proof-reading slip and he didn't want an apostrophe at all – we're talking here of “...the Dickens family...', no genitive, just the family name used adjectivally! But read on: time and time again, with total authorial and editorial consistency, we see the 'non-preferred' genitive form “Dickens'”, as in “...Dickens' this...”, “...Dickens' that...” and “...Dickens' the other...”! Now either James Priory is a law unto himself, with a total disregard for preferred usage, and we 's-apostrophe-s' types are right all along. Or he may just have a point and we [that is, the learned Professor, the Librarian (some of the time) and I (a one-time publisher pedant)] of the other persuasion are dead in the wa'ter.

Driving down the old Commercial Road, and now nearly home, I glance up at the bold brass lettering on the front of the Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum – hey, look again! That's some kind of clincher, isn't it (or “is it n't”)? No black marks for Headmaster's today, I fear!

* In no political sense, I should say.

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