Ian McEwan’s metalinguistic comments

During the final month of 2022 I read two of Ian McEwan’s novels, an earlier one, Saturday (2005), and his most recent Lessons (2022). Ever since reading his short story “Mother tongue” (2001) I’ve been keeping track of his metalinguistic comments, as I have with other popular writers, such as John le Carré. Unfortunately, there were none in Saturday, but I did spot two in Lessons, both on the apostrophe:

  • Upstairs at this desk he saw the email. ‘Dropped off at Sams. Back late tonight. x L.’ Lawrence knew that his father rarely read text messages. Roland [the main character] tried not to mind about the absent apostrophe (p. 314)
  • … framed jokey signs … that a local pub must have donated. You don’t have to be mad to work here but it help’s. Roland’s gaze was fixed on the apostrophe, surprised that it moved him. They were all doing their best to get by with what they had (pp. 375-6)

Both of them are social comments: the first is about his son Lawrence (like most of his generation) not caring about punctuation, but it may also be about language standards dropping in the social media. And the second reads like another example of the greengrocer’s apostrophe.

Lessons is a great and very moving book, with some autobiographical elements in it. Having read “Mother tongue” explained quite a bit for me about the main character’s social background.

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2 Responses to Ian McEwan’s metalinguistic comments

  1. Heddwen says:

    Ah, the age-old griping about apostrophes, or should I say apostrophe’s.

    I recently found this old blog with 15 years’ worth of complaints! http://www.apostropheabuse.com/

    I’ve put it on my list of websites and blogs about English, which also has Bridging the Unbridgeable (great that you still update, btw, so many don’t).

    https://englishinprogress.net/list-of-websites-and-blogs

    • Thanks for this, Heddwen! Though the project ended in December 2016, I’ve found it impossible to stop noticing such issues. And am still regularly publishing on the subject. At the moment I’m working on a paper on Robert Browning and prescriptivism.

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