Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, we’re getting festive…
Q: Season’s Greetings Australian Writers’ Centre!
A: Well, you’re in a good mood.
Q: Who wouldn’t be? I’ve just been in a department store where they had Snoopy’s Christmas on constant repeat. I’ve listened to it so many times that I started wishing for the Red Baron to just pull that trigger up tight. Stupid bells from the village below. They ruin everything…
A: Oookay. So what were you buying?
Q: Oh, it was 25% off all toys if you bought 30% more than you’d intended on your first purchase, so I was taking advantage of that. And I got some Christmas cards. Here’s yours.
A: Thanks. “Jingle bowels”… haha, okay and it’s got a picture of reindeer with a case of gastro…nawwww very cute.
Q: Yeah I thought so. Actually, while we’re talking Christmas, can you answer a question about some Christmas-speak that pops up at this time of year?
A: Sure, why not. Wrapping these lumps of coal can be done later. So, what’s the question?
Q: Well, people say “Tis the season” and “Twas the night before Christmas” – is that with an apostrophe or what? And where does it go? I’ve seen a few variations like ’tis or t’was etc.
A: The humble apostrophe has just two jobs, despite many thinking it has around 84. If it’s not doing the first job – indicating possession (i.e. “Santa’s workshop”) – then it’s replacing missing letters to form a “contraction”. And in this case, “tis” and “twas” are contractions of “it is” and “it was” so we get: ’tis and ’twas to replace the missing “i” in “it is” and “it was”.
Q: Pretty simple really. Makes you wonder why so many people get confused.
A: Anything to do with apostrophes and people run screaming.
Q: OK, well how ’bout this. Often ’tis or ’twas begin the sentence. Should they start lowercase? I’ve seen some people say that a sentence shouldn’t start with the capital T due to the first letter actually being missing.
A: Nah, that’s not necessary. A capital is fine, just ensure the apostrophe is included before it. So when it comes at the beginning of a sentence (which is common), we have the contractions: ’Tis the season. ’Twas the night before…
Q: Hahaha, you um, hee hee, better get to a hospital quick.
A: Oh, why’s that?
Q: Because those contractions weren’t very far apart! Pffftth bwahahahahaaa.
A: Wow, you’re quite proud of that one.
Q: Ahem, sorry. So, you say apostrophes only have two jobs: possession and contraction. So if I see people talk about the 1990’s or the 90’s, then they’re wrong?
A: They are wrong if they’re not talking about possession – because “1990’s football World Cup” would be fine. But for plurals, you’d say 1990s or ’90s – the latter being a contraction with the “19” being replaced by the apostrophe. Likewise, if someone is in their 40s, it’s a plural so no apostrophe, and often you’d write that as a word: “he was in his forties”…
Q: DVD’s and CD’s?
A: Again, only if it’s possessive, and NEVER simply to indicate a plural. So it’s 10 CDs and a DVD’s special features.
Q: Can you use everything I’ve learnt today in a sentence?
A: Sure. ’Tis the season for buying discounted CDs and DVDs of classics from the ’90s, like Hootie and the Blowfish or Dumb and Dumber – ’twas a truly memorable decade.
Q: Well I’m not sure about Dumb and Dumber, but I certainly feel smarter now. O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
A: You really did listen to Snoopy’s Christmas a lot. We always wondered what that first bit of that song was…