ôô

The Santaback: An Ambiguous Figure of Speech

We had to invent a new term to cover figures of speech that rely on the dual meaning of an apostrophe: santaback.

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read

Here's an interesting question from Lynn.

"Hi, my name is Lynn, and I'm calling with a question about the use of an apostrophe. I'm wondering if there's a special term for the usage where an apostrophe can indicate either a contraction or a possessive form, and I have two examples of that from my own small town. A hardware store which has been there for over 50 years has a wooden sign that hangs on the front porch that says 'Today's special,' and below that is another wooden sign that says 'So is tomorrow.' And the other example is a local house that has a Christmas decoration in the form of a wooden cut-out of Santa Claus seen from behind, and it just says 'Santa's back.' I've always gotten a kick out of those usages because it always tricks you into thinking that it means either possessive or a contraction, but you can't really tell necessarily from the usage. Anyway, thanks. I enjoy reading your stuff and always look forward to it. Bye."

Thanks, Lynn! This was tougher to figure out than I expected it to be, and I turned to my language friends on Twitter for help because it turns out that there are a few different things your examples are almost like.

Garden-Path Sentences

The first one is what's called a garden-path sentence, so called because the sentence leads you down the garden path and then tricks you by ending up somewhere you didn't expect to be. It's a lot like a concept in comedy called the reverse. 

A common example of a garden-path sentence is "The old man the boat." Because "old man" is a common phrase, you think the sentence is going to be about an old man, but it's actually using "man" as a verb meaning something like "to serve as the crew": The old serve as the crew on the boat. It led you down the old-man garden path, and then switcharoo—we're talking about something else!

Your examples could fall into this category, but they don't fit exactly. In particular, a linguist named Alicia Stevers stressed that garden-path sentences have to be single sentences, and the "Today's special" signboard really feels like two sentences since the two parts are written on two different boards, and then only one interpretation of "Santa's back" is a sentence.

Crash Blossoms

A similar language trick or problem is called a crash blossom, which is a term that usually seems to be reserved for confusing headlines. The name comes from this confusing headline—"Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms"—posted to a forum called Testy Copy Editors in August 2009 by a user named Bessie3. 

Journalists were sharing these kinds of headlines before they got a name, such as "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim," and for a while, there was even a website devoted to compiling them, called crashblossoms.com, which has sadly gone dark. But you can still see old versions at the Internet Archive, which includes such real-life beauties as "Drunk Puppy Buying Banned by West Village Pet Stores."

Crash blossoms are fun, but I don't think your examples qualify as these either.

Zeugma and Syllepsis

Next on the list of possibilities people suggested is zeugma and syllepsis, which as far as I can tell are two names for the same thing. These occur when you use a word with different meanings to create a playful sentence, such as this line from Alanis Morissette's song "Head Over Feet": "You held your breath and the door for me." Slightly different kinds of holding.

Wikipedia actually breaks down four different kinds of zeugma and syllepsis. That line from the song is what they call Type 2, "a single word is used with two other parts of a sentence but must be understood differently in relation to each." Another example of that is "Miss Bolo [...] went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair." from "The Pickwick Papers" by Charles Dickens.

Type 4 is interesting too. That's when "a word or phrase is used both in its figurative and literal sense at the same time," as in this example, also from Wikipedia: A transport company that advertises "We go a long way for you." They transport your goods a long distance, but they also go out of their way with customer service.

These are fun, but they don't feel very close to your two examples with misleading apostrophes to me.

Paraprosdokian

The final category people suggested was paraprosdokian, a figure of speech that gets its name from Greek that means "beyond expectation" because, much like the other examples, it comes from having a surprise ending. But its definition is a little broader than that for a garden-path sentence because it can also include multiple sentences, although it doesn't have to.

For example, this line from Zsa Zsa Gabore usually seems to be written with a semicolon, but it could be two sentences: “He taught me housekeeping. When I divorce I keep the house.”

In particular, the definition from LiteraryDevices.net makes me think this is the best category for the restaurant sign "Today's special. So is tomorrow."

"It causes the readers to reinterpret or rethink the opening part of a phrase, sentence, stanza, or paragraph."

That's exactly what the sign does. So I'm calling that one a paraprosdokian!

The Santaback

But that still leaves us with the "Santa's back" double meaning, which to me, doesn't quite fit any of these categories. 

So today, I propose a new name! There already seem to be a gazillion potentially overlapping categories for these figures of speech, so the world should accept one more. I'm calling it a "santaback": a double meaning based on multiple interpretations of an apostrophe. 

"Santaback": a double meaning based on multiple interpretations of an apostrophe.

"Santa's back" would clearly be a santaback, and I'd say "Today's special. So is tomorrow," would be both a paraprosdokian and a santaback since it uses the misleading apostrophe. I hope people come up with more examples, and if you do, please share them on social media.

Thanks for the question, Lynn.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.