Saturday, August 24, 2013

Of if's and but's

A quiz question for Shakespeare buffs: which character speaks the line “If me no ifs and but me no buts”?

Had I to guess, I should have gone for Macbeth, but I would have been wrong.  There's no such line. The nearest Shakespeare got to it was "Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle" in Richard II, and “Talk’st thou to me of ifs” in Richard III.  I'm not the first though to suppose that “but me no buts” is found in Shakespeare. Bernard Levin wrongly included it in his 1983 tour de force on quoting Shakespeare; which must in turn have been read by fictional prime minister Jim Hacker who makes a fool of himself by committing the same error in the 1980’s BBC TV series Yes Prime Minister.

As to "If me no ifs", Elizabeth Gaskell used it in Wives and Daughters (1864). Whilst “but me no buts" first occurs in a 1709 play, and if we believe the script of Yes Prime Minister (which I'm not sure I do) was popularised by Sir Walter Scott in 1816. So far as I can tell however the line “If me no ifs and but me no buts” first appeared in this blog, so perhaps I've achieved a sort of immortality, and who knows I might one day make it to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

You'll find citations for the foregoing on a separate page if you want them. But where did this frolic begin, you may ask? It was the grocer’s apostrophe. Or an accusation thereof. Pondering lab-made hamburgers recently, I said there were a couple of ifs that I didn't have space for: in a perfect world, if anyone would eat meat, and if there would be McDonalds. But I actually wrote if’s, and Albert queried this. He was too tactful to call it a grocer’s apostrophe but that’s what it amounted to.  So here are my thoughts. When debating the if’s that arise from the eating of hamburgers, I reckon the apostrophe looks right. On the other hand in “If me no if’s and but me no but’s” the apostrophes intrude, and spoil the flow.

From here on it's all about apostrophes, so if that’s not your thing, I'm sorry. Are there rules? There's a website called where you'll find someone pronouncing in all solemnity that to write CD’s and DVD’s is incorrect, supporting this by the assertion that an apostrophe properly indicates an omitted letter. I haven't included a link as there will be numerous other places where you can find the same sort of stuff, and it's all poppycock. I've experimented with leaving the apostrophe out and decided I don't like it.  I'm sticking to CD’s and 1980’s. If pressed I could devise a rule to justify this but I lack the energy. If you prefer CDs and 1980s that’s fine with me. No more to be said.

There are advocates of greater or lesser use of apostrophes. Here's an amusing and well-written overview: Should the Apostrophe Be Abolished? The Not-So-Great Apostrophe Debate.

Probably in 50 years time no-one will write CD’s. Nor indeed listen to them. Lynne Truss in her 2003 book Eats, Shoots & Leaves thinks that CDs and 1980s have already arrived in British English, CD’s and 1980’s surviving only in America. But she says if the abolitionists get their way entirely, they’ll regret it as soon as they discover they can't write “Goodbye to the Apostrophe: we're not missing you a bit”.  By the way on the question of if’s, Truss claims there's a rule that the apostrophe indicates the plural of words, as in “Are there too many but's and and’s at the beginning of sentences these days?”.  This shows you can invent a rule to justify any usage you happen to like.

Oho! I've just noticed I wrote in 50 years time. The authorities, Grammar-monster for example, think it should be in 50 years' time. But whilst I see the point of an apostrophe to indicate the possessive case in two days’ pay I don't in two days time. So even with me, it seems the process of abandoning apostrophes has begun …

And finally, what about the derivation of the expression “grocer's (or greengrocer's) apostrophe”? The best I can do is to quote the Wikipedia article on the apostrophe which gives the following tantalisingly incomplete information:  “The term is believed to have been coined in the middle of the 20th century by a teacher of languages working in Liverpool, at a time when such mistakes were common in the handwritten signs and advertisements of greengrocers.”


  1. I passed a church a few days ago, outside which there was a billboard that read:

    Whats missing?

    Admittedly, their intention was rather smart, but if I had the tools with me it would have been tempting to stick "an apostrophe" over the top of the UR.

    As regards "50 years time" vs "50 years' time", there are other examples such as the word "yours". Really, that might logically be though to be "your's" but we have become so usd to "yours" that to write it with an apostrophe seems silly.

    Remind me, which eminent author was it who predicted the virtual complete abandonment of the apostrophe? Was it George Bernard Shaw?

  2. I have an apostrophe story if you're interested Pete. A few years ago we were in a cafe in Cornwall - lovely cafe and the lady serving was so nice, couldn't do enough for us and very fussy over Jude, who was our only one at the time. However I had noticed the chalked sign at the till advertising "strawberry's and cream", and was probably feeling smug about it. Another customer came to pay at the till. The lovely lady asked if everything had been ok, passed a bit of small talk about Falmouth and was still smiling as she gave the customer their change. Then, just as the customer turned to leave they pointed to the sign and said "oh by the way, that's wrong, it should be i-e-s not strawberry's". At this the cafe lady's face dropped and she looked genuinely crestfallen as the customer went out of the door, no doubt accompanied by a feeling of superiority. I felt so bad for this poor lady, who had been nothing but kind and pleasant, and was repaid with only rudeness (I would never have DREAMED of pointing it out to her). The gist of this is that it made me think it really isn't that important, and todays mistake's will probably become tomorroes accepted language, which, after all, is changing all t'time. Does still bug me a bit when I see it on proper (ie permanent) signs though.......

  3. Good tale Noggin, and yes I quite agree, if you are going to correct somebody's use of apostrophes you need to first weigh up the relative merits of doing so, and not doing so.

    There's something else I forgot to mention. My friend Phil Cope favours an apostrophe in the plural form in certain instances. He has an interesting reason for this, using an example of "how many i's are there in...?" Without the apostrophe in that sentence, the plural of i would look like another word, is.

  4. Jane Austen writing c. 1815 didn't write your’s so far as I can tell, but she did write her’s. Of Bernard Shaw more later.