Loving Apostrophes Isn't Just for Valentine's

How the saint's celebration of love continues with no saint, little love and too many apostrophes

On a black background there is a heart shape that has been ripped into two pieces. On top of one side are the letters l and o, they look like they are written with sparks. On the other half of the heart are the letters v and e, written in the same style
Photos: Jude Beck at Unsplash

The Feast of Saint Valentine is over for another year. How was it for you?


With participation no longer a focus, now is a good time to look at the background to the day. There is much we can learn and take on board for the other 364 days of the year.


From the origin of the name, to the traps laid out by the associated words, language plays a part in the potential turmoil that can happen around this day of love. In this article, I will explain why the message of the day should really be "love isn’t real", and give you ways to remember your apostrophes, capitals and plurals. But first, let's set the context by looking at the truth behind the sell.


(TL;DR? You will find a summary of the accepted grammar norms to use at the bottom of this article.)


What's love got to do with it?


The day may target the wallets of adults, but the love it celebrates is the love defined by our 8-year-old selves. It is the happy ending, the swirling emotion, the secret that makes life complete. It is the mysterious feeling the grown-ups told us we would understand when we were older.


It wouldn’t be as easy to sell the champagne, chocolate, and roses if it were more honest in its definition, representing the things we later discover are really driving long-term relationships. Having a mate who you don’t mind having sex with now and again. Saving money by combining two salaries and getting tax benefits. Avoiding loneliness in old age.

 
In a white frame on a black background are the letters l and o from the beginning of the word love
Photo: Jude Beck at Unsplash

What really happens on Valentine’s Day?


Lots of us get married.


But not for long.


The idea of saying your vows on the 14th of February oozes big romantic gesture. Unfortunately, couples who begin their lives of marital bliss on Valentine’s Day don’t enjoy their double celebration for long, as they are over 18% more likely to divorce, and divorce sooner, than those married on a more ‘normal’ day.


1 in 10 won’t last five years. 1 in 5 will never receive their gift of tin.


The average marriage in the UK lasts 12.3 years.

 

We keep florists and card shops in business


Many moan that Hallmark invented the day to make money. This isn’t quite true. Sending love tokens on Feb 14th is thought to have been originated by Chaucer in the poem Parliament of Fowls, written around the late 14th century.


It is an important day for income for a range of businesses. Research from 2018 saw that spend with florists increased by 467% compared to the rest of the year. This was just ahead of that most romantic of venues, the bowling alley, which saw an increase of 191%.


But the real winners of the day benefited from a massive 549% increase. That would be solicitors.

 

We think about marriage


Specifically, we think about ending a marriage.


Divorce filings are always highest in January. But the spark of New Year's resolution can be grown into a full-on blaze by a thoughtless gift in February. Google reports a 504% increase in divorce-related questions on Valentine's Day, and the number of filings increase by 40%.

 

Everyday language becomes incendiary


With tensions running high, we find evidence to back up suspicions.


The toilet seat left up shows you are a filthy, disease-ridden killer. Forgetting the dry cleaning is a sign of your selfishness. Not giving head makes your adultery obvious.


And words become flamethrowers.


Passing comments are snide remarks. Quick replies, testy snaps. Witty irony is bitter sarcasm. Speaking becomes shouting then yelling. Ok, maybe that's a little dramatic.

 
In a white frame on a black background are the letters v and e from the end of the word love
Photo: Jude Beck at Unsplash

From unsteady beginnings…


The uncertain outcome of the day may not be surprising considering its unstable foundations.


Including knowing who the day is named for.


Saint Valentine himself was a Roman priest and physician who secretly carried out weddings for Christian couples. This was against the wishes of Claudius II (known as Claudius the Cruel) who believed that married men made poor soldiers. Emperor Claudius decapitated the priest around AD270.


Or he could have been a bishop of Interamna who also found a way to bring couples together in matrimony. And who was also executed by good old Claudy.


Or he might have been Pope Valentine, who served for only 40 days in AD827.


Or at a pinch, he might have been she; St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine in AD308.


It's not that I can't be arsed to research this. The name Valentine – meaning worthy, strong, or powerful – was very popular between the second and eighth centuries and is the name of at least a dozen saints. Even the most scholarly theologian can't be sure who is the Valentine of Valentine's Day.


There is so much uncertainty that, in 1969, the church discontinued his veneration. Meaning that although still on the list of officially recognised saints, in essence, we are using an unknown myth to represent love. I am not one to say whether that seems fitting.


It may be worth knowing that it’s not just lovers that Valentine looks over.


Valentine is the patron saint of beekeeping.


And epilepsy.


Just saying.

 
In a white frame on a black background are neon letters. The letters are i and lov. They have been removed from the phrase i love you
Photo: Ali Yahya at Unsplash

The language of love


The language we associate with the day is a hornet's nest of apostrophes, capitalisation and plural issues itching for a fight.


Knowing your Valentine from your valentine and your Valentine's from your valentines, will set you in good stead for some of the general rules of grammar.


Prepare to fall in love with words.

On a black background is a white frame containing the bottom of the letters L and O
Photo: Clem Onojeghuo

Capitalisation.

It's all in the name.


Question: Is it Valentine or valentine?

Answer: Yes.


The proper answer is that it depends.


It looks like one word so you may expect one answer. But, as your mother may have told you, you shouldn’t take everything at face value.


To understand grammatical structure, you need to look past the aesthetics. You need to compare the function of the word.


Question: So when do I use uppercase Valentine?

Answer: Only when referring to the Saint.


The 'v' word can be a proper noun, a common noun, or the moderator of a compound noun.


The day was named after Saint Valentine who was a real person (probably), so describing the day uses his name. Names – whether Smith, Jones, Ximenez or Valentine – are proper nouns. Proper nouns always have a capital letter.


Referring to the 14th of February

I love loving on Saint Valentine's Day, even though I'm single.
On what day does Valentine's Day fall this year?
Happy St. Valentine's to all the lovers.

Question: And when do I use a lowercase v?

Answer: For everything else.


(Unless it is at the start of a sentence, of course.)


Valentine (like that) is a common noun when used on its own to represent anything other than the Saint.


Like a gift:

She bought me a watch as a valentine, and I bought her an electric whisk.

Or a card:

I posted his valentine on Saturday so I can blame Royal Mail for the delay.

To describe an event:

We had our annual valentine shag.

Or a person:

I took her to the pub as they did free drinks if you went with your valentine.

Some argue that when the word names the object of your affection, it is an example of metonymy: using the name of a person as a metaphor. In this case, it remains a proper noun and retains the leading capital.


Which is a useful Get Out of Jail Free card if you ever need one.


But be wary. The reason this is view isn't widely shared is because it doesn’t reflect common usage. Think about it. You hoover the floor. You don't Hoover it.


Also bear in mind that, for the rule of metonymy to stand, you must be likening your love to the actual saint. Drawing comparisons with a decapitated priest. It is not necessarily as romantic as you’d like. Or as your partner would appreciate.


A close-up of a large metal fishing hook upside-down
Photo: Grace To at Unsplash

Apostrophising.

The hooks of grammar.

Question: Why do we use the apostrophe?

Answer: For contracting or for possessing. But never for plurals.


If you struggle to know whether to use an apostrophe and where to put it, you are in the company of experts.


Ever since the apostrophe appeared, there have been disagreements over where it’s rightly positioned, and its value in language is constantly questioned.


(Did you see what I did there? Just one of the illogical irregularities of the joyful apostrophe.)


Keeping this simple means accepting exceptions in advance.


Think of the apostrophe as the hook it resembles. It's a metaphor that may help.


Question: How do I use the apostrophe for contracting?

Answer: When you want to be off the hook.


If you are off the hook, you have had responsibility removed. As in "Mum's coming tonight so you’re off the hook for babysitting duties".


If the apostrophe is off the hook, it shows that letters have been removed and the hook is replacing those letters. For example:


To replace the 'o' from 'not':

I haven't read anything this interesting before.

The 'a' from 'am':

I'm going to continue reading.

The only word that can be off the hook here is 'is' from the non-contracted 'valentine is'; which is not something you would often need to say. For example:

You hate your partner:

My valentine’s a bitch.

You like the gift you were given:

My valentine’s very useful.

You think the Saint is unattractive:

That dead Saint Valentine’s a right munter.

Question: How do I use the apostrophe for possession?

Answer: When you're on the hook.


Let us continue with the hook metaphor.