‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

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David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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Apostrophes, Part One: Don’t Get Possessive with Your Plurals

thewordweasel

In the previous post I gave you a test. Replace each (?) with the appropriate word from the following list.

 I know (?) no way that Porsche could be (?).

  1. their’s

  2. theirs

  3. there’s

  4. theres

  5. they’re’s

  6. they’res

Answer: I know there’s no way that Porsche could be theirs.

How would you know this if I didn’t provide usage notes on the contraction there’s vs. the possessive pronoun theirs?

Recall that the possessive pronoun your doesn’t use an apostrophe. That’s because the apostrophe-s is for possessive nouns, not pronouns.

If that seems a little odd to you, remember that the use of an apostrophe-s to indicate possession is a convention almost unique to English. It’s handy, for sure, and it saves words; most of our sister languages have to use a prepositional phrase to indicate possession: la cabra del Presidente (literally, “the goat of the President”) rather than the President’s…

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