Saturday, September 21, 2013

Major Barbara and uncouth bacilli

G.B. Shaw in 1909,
five years after writing Major Barbara
Have been re-reading GB Shaw’s Major Barbara.  I studied it for A-level English in 1966 and never gave it a second thought until I found it was being performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where we saw it last Saturday. Much to say about it, but now (oh no not again I hear you cry) I'm sticking to apostrophes.

Shaw called them “uncouth bacilli" and condemned them in the following terms:-

"The apostrophies [sic] in ain't, don't, haven't, etc., look so ugly that the most careful printing cannot make a page of colloquial dialogue as handsome as a page of classical dialogue. Besides, shan't should be sha"n't, if the wretched pedantry of indicating the elision is to be carried out. I have written aint, dont, havnt, shant, shouldnt and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only where its omission would suggest another word: for example, hell for he'll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. I also write thats, whats, lets, for the colloquial forms of that is, what is, let us; and I have not yet been prosecuted."

Now we'll look at a pivotal moment from Act II of Major Barbara, in the 1908 edition of Archibald Constable & Co, London. I've highlighted in green where he's left apostrophes out and in yellow where he's left them in. To my way of thinking it's a mess. Why some and not others?  Shaw doesn't even appear to have followed his own rules.  It's almost enough to make you join the Apostrophe Preservation Society.

BARBARA. Oh, youre too extravagant, papa. Bill offers twenty
pieces of silver. All you need offer is the other ten. That will
make the standard price to buy anybody who's for sale. I'm not;
and the Army's not. [To Bill] Youll never have another quiet
moment, Bill, until you come round to us. You cant stand out
against your salvation.

BILL ... Ive offered to pay. I can do no more.

Shaw didn't get everything right. When almost 89 years old he wrote a letter to The Times published on May 18, 1945, saying Irish premier de Valera was correct in calling on the German ambassador a few weeks earlier to present condolences on Hitler’s death. Shocking. Though technically de Valera was correct and Shaw was correct in saying he was correct. So maybe that’s not an example of Shaw being wrong after all.  But the apostrophe business is, imho. Link to my previous disquisition on apostrophes.

Notes: The Shaw quote is from "Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers." The Author, 1901, quoted in

For an essay on the history of the apostrophe see the excellent Grammarphobia blog. It came into use in the 1500's, and the possessive apostrophe originally indicated a missing letter. 


  1. Shaw, as was his wont, stubbornly refused to include an apostrophe when writing "won't".

    I find it interesting that "lets" (as an abbreviation of "let us") has quietly slipped into acceptable use, but none of his other suggestions have. I wonder why.

  2. There's no logic in language. The supposition that there is frequently leads one astray.