19 August 2005

Journalist’s apostrophe?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

apostrophe.jpgI promise not to let these pages slide into a punctuation witch-hunt (though would it be so terrible if they did?), but it now seems that my relaxed attitude towards misplaced apostrophes of last week may have been dangerously naïve, judging from the opening paragraph of this story on the front page of Wednesday’s The Australian. Now journalists are under pretty constant time pressures and it’s easy to slip up, especially when you’ve just typed a couple of legitimate apostrophes and feel like you’re on a roll. But they do have copy-editors and you’d think that the front page would deserve some special attention. I had to read this paragraph three or four times to confirm that it really was a mistake and that there wasn’t a noun I’d forgotten to read somewhere in there.

Which is why apostrophe abuse in this kind of case is much more damaging than the proverbial greengrocer’s apostrophe. By mapping eye movements during reading tasks, clever science-types have worked out that we generally don’t read a text letter-by-letter or even word-by-word: we skip all over the place, backwards and forwards, and sometimes don’t even look at particular words at all, instead preferring to fill them in based on our knowledge of the patterns of language. Newspaper articles are designed to be read quickly, with guidelines for the order of sentences and paragraphs to allow the reader to extract his or her preferred level of detail in the shortest possible time—which is why, for example, they usually start with a single-sentence summary paragraph. Fast reading involves a certain amount of word-skipping and loads more work onto the predictive parts of our brains. My theory is that when you scan a word with a possessive apostrophe in it you expect a noun phrase to turn up pretty soon afterwards, and when one doesn’t the wheels come off; the fluent reading you were enjoying seizes up and you have to limp back and pick through each word like a jerk to work out what’s actually going on, and it’s a total pain.

Back down at the letter-level, I’m sure you’ve all read this by now:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

But aoccdrnig to Matt Davis, who actually is a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, this isn’t exactly true: in fact, the scrambled words in the example are rather uniquely easy to decipher due to the words themselves (which tend not to have ambiguous anagrams) and the ways the internal letters are scrambled (often simple transpositions of letter-pairs). Language patterns above the word-level must also play a part here; for example if you’ve unpicked the hardly-scrambled “Cmabrigde” it’s much easier to predict the more-thoroughly-mixed “Uinervtisy” that follows. But it’s all very interesting.

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