"But, really, why does anyone create? You feel a... a restlessness inside, a need to make something new, something no one has ever seen before. You want to add to the beauty and the richness of the world with a gift, an offering that is uniquely yours. It's an act of selfishness and generosity, all rolled into one."

-- Bruce Coville,
The Last Hunt

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Poor, Lonely Apostrophe

There's nothing about tatting in today's post, and it's a long one. However, I did say that my blog would occasionally be about "whatever else comes up", and this is something I just have to get off my chest. If you're bored by this post, you probably really need to read it. :)

I went to school in days of yore, when children in English-speaking countries were expected to- get this- learn English. Reading some of what shows up on the internet is thus quite painful to me. I see mistakes everywhere, including the sites of big corporations, which you would think would employ professional copy editors. Why, why, WHY do people think that grammar and puctuation are not important in an electronic medium? If anything, they are more important; your audience can't see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice, so you must make your meaning abundantly clear. The position that "they know what I meant" doesn't cut it with me. I might be able to guess what you meant, or I might not. It is a matter of respect and consideration for your readers not to make them guess. Here is a classic example of how punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

As you can see, the same words in the same order can mean complete opposite things depending on the punctuation. If I simply write, "A woman without her man is nothing" it's anybody's guess what I mean. Should my feminist sensibilities be offended? Should my male readers be offended? I don't know, and neither do you. Punctuate it, and the meaning will be clear.

There was a case in British law where the lawyers were debating the meaning of a law based on whether there was or was not a comma in it. A man was actually hanged (not hung, but hanged) because it was decided that the law did not contain a comma. For the full story, see the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, a very entertaining and educational read. (Why won't Blogger let me use italics in my link?)

Here's another example of how just one punctuation mark can make all the difference:

Those old things in the corner are my husbands.

As written, this sentence means, roughly, "I have several husbands. They are elderly, I regard them as objects rather than people, and they are sitting in the corner." Let's try it this way:

Those old things in the corner are my husbands'.

This one means, "I have several husbands, and the battered objects in the corner belong to them collectively." Let's give it one more try:

Those old things in the corner are my husband's.

Ah, that's better. Now it means, "I have one husband, and the battered objects in the corner belong to him."

This brings me to the subject of today's rant: plurals, possessives, and the correct use of the apostrophe in general. The poor, lonely apostrophe. It is abused by some and neglected by others, and yet when used correctly, it can do so much to clarify a sentence. It's really not hard, either.

To form a plural noun, you do not need an apostrophe. Now, don't argue with me; you just don't. In most cases, the plural is formed simply by adding an s (es if the word already ends in s, z, or x) to the end of the word. For example: things, corners, husbands, boxes. Sometimes, you have to change the spelling of the word a little bit; the plural of wife is wives. Sometimes the word changes altogether and there is no s at all: children, geese, feet. Occasionally, a word may be the same in both the singular and plural forms; you may have one sheep or many sheep. For the most part, though, adding s or es will get you through. The bottom line for the purpose of my discussion is, DON'T PUT A BLOODY APOSTROPHE IN A PLURAL WORD!

To form the possessive of a singular noun, add 's. That's right, you may use the apostrophe now. The word husband's means belonging to my (one) husband. Possessive words nearly always have an apostrophe. I can only think of six exceptions, and I will list them in a bit.

To form the plural possessive of a noun, add s'. Use the apostrophe, and put it in the right place. The word husbands' means belonging to my (two or more) husbands. Now, it does get a bit muddy here. For those weird nouns that don't form their plural by adding s, you will form the plural possessive by adding 's to the plural form: children's.

There you go. Four rules. Surely you can remember that many.

The other place where apostrophes should be used is where certain letters are omitted, as in contractions. For example, can't for cannot, doesn't for does not, and she'd for she would or she had.

Now, remember I told you there are six possessive words that don't take an apostrophe? Here they are. Memorize them. The possessive of I is my. The possessive of he is his. The possessive of she is her. Everyone gets these three right. The other three are trickier, because they are often confused with other words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean something different as well. The possessive of you is your; you're is the contraction of you are. The possessive of they is their; they're is the contraction of they are (and there refers to a place). Finally, the one that bugs me the most, and the one I see most often: the possessive of it is its; it's is the contraction of it is or it has. It's very important that you know how to form both the plural of a word and its possessive. See? It's not hard.

OK, end of rant. And no, anal retentive does not have a hyphen. And read Lynne Truss's book. Really.

Ah, I feel better now.


  1. Well said! I've read both versions of Lynne Truss's book. I love showing the children's version at school when we begin research projects!

  2. Well, well! You certainly were hot under the collar and I do so understand!

    Having taught ESL for a number of years, I have a few good rants up my sleeve at all times.

    I KNOW the rules, but am always checking my well-worn copy of Srunk and White's, "The Elements of Style"! In spite of that, I STILL make the same old boo-boos! But, I do try.

    Thanks for a great read.
    Fox : )

  3. Oh my God, I love you. A few weeks back I read an article in the paper about the 'riggers of the past few months'. Riggers? I immediately emailed the reporter and kindly pointed out to him that it's 'rigors'. He wrote back saying hi didn't even know the word, was just quoting the person who spoke it, and it was the proofreader's job, not his to catch something like that. So I wrote him back to let him know that while it is the proofreader's job to correct his spelling, he used the wrong word entirely. He never responded.

    Another one that gets me is 'pleaded' instead of 'pled'. Drives me crazy, that one!

    *apologies for any incorrect grammar and/or punctuation* ;)

  4. I can't tell you how many times I've seen an apostrophe where it doesn't belong---on billboards and signage! Makes me crazy too.....but of course now I'm questioning every apostrophe I've used in this comment.....

  5. Diane, I knew you would appreciate this one.

    Fox, I actually have complete sympathy for ESL students. Ours is a crazy language. I've actually noticed that people who have learned English as a second language tend to make the opposite mistakes from native speakers. ESL people will tend to follow the rules where they should have made an exception; this actually doesn't bother me so much, as it shows that the person was trying to get it right. Native speakers just act like there are no rules, and that is what drives me nuts.

    Steph, that's pretty appalling that a professional writer can't be bothered to open a dictionary. How could he possibly think it's OK to quote somebody without understanding their meaning?

    Krystle, maybe we could boycott every seller who makes grammatical errors in their advertising? We'd probably save a lot of money!

    I do hope that if I ever have a grammar or punctuation error on my blog, somebody will point it out to me, because I hate it when I do that! (Only I do sometimes use sentence fragments or comma splices intentionally for stylistic reasons. I mean unintentional mistakes.)

  6. Ahhhhh - I sense another member of the greengrocer's apostrophe vigilante group!
    Bothers me too, enormously; my son has perfect pitch and wrong notes upset him; my ears and eyes are affronted by incorrect grammar.
    There are online groups which share your concerns - I had to unsubscribe, due to the sheer volume of incoming mail!

  7. Oh! That was a super rant.....my apologies in advance for any errors that I make...bound to be some!

    My pet hates:-
    Not knowing when to use I or me,
    It's easy...if you want to write
    John and ? went out. Is it I or me. Is it:-
    John and I went out or John and me went out?
    It's easy, just leave off John, and you will get:-
    I went out or Me went out, then it is obvious which is correct.

    It's even worse when people say Me and John went out, instead of John and I....same rule leave out John and see which sounds right.

    Then there is He gave it to John and me, or He gave it to John and I, this really makes me cringe.
    Same rule, leave off the other person and think..would you write He gave it to I.

    I have MORE rants too, even worse is THIS and THAT.The rule is:-
    THIS is near to you THAT is far away.
    How many times do I pick up the phone and someone says "Who is this?' The desire to reply If you don't know who you are how can you expect me to!! is almost overwhelming. It should be Who is THAT.
    The funniest time was when someone asked "Is this the Ancient Mariner?"
    (a pub)Oh, how hard it was not to come up with a wisecrack answer.

    Another one is the now very common menu sign of paninis, when it should be panino or panini, I have learned to tolerate that but even worse, Miranda you would also hate is Panini's!!!!!

    Oh dear, I fear that I have written an essay.

  8. Miranda,
    Obviously I did not make myself clear! I mentioned ESL to indicate that I have had a lot of experience with grammar and am a grammar fiend myself.

    The ESL students were brilliant! I learned so much from them - probably more than they did from me. And you are right about how they follow the rules more than a native speaker, sometimes with hilarious results.

    Apropos of this conversation, I saw a sign yesterday advertising a psychic/fortuneteller's skills:

    "Passlife Readings"

    Oh boy!
    Fox : )

  9. Maureen, let's take up Lynne Truss's suggestion of always going out armed with a bottle of correction fluid and a marker to fix the signs at the grocery store!

    Tatskool, I'm right there with you. The underlying problem, of course, is that people don't understand the difference between a subject and an object; but there's really no excuse when such a simple test exists.

    Fox, actually I think I didn't make myself clear. I was intending to agree with you, and to clarify that I'm only being judgmental of native English speakers, not people learning it as a second language.

  10. Yup I agree, they don't know about subjects and objects...and spilt infinitives...to boldly go! ....and bring or take....bring is towards me and take is away from me....they constantly say thinks like "we brought him to the zoo"!

    More ranting, my hubby shouts at the TV all the time, so much so that our kids picked up the corrections! well some of them(corrections not kids!)

  11. LOL! I understand and have felt the same "twitch" when I see poor grammar. Then...I am appalled as I read what I've written sometimes, in such a hurry, writing "their" for "there" when I clearly knew the difference. My fingers have a mind of their own sometimes. I don't let it bother me so much in informal settings but something professionally prepared should be correct!

    I also hate the slang used in texting or email.... R U (are you) for instance, even though I know it's a matter of convenience related to time and money - but I still hate it.

  12. Oh, yeah, you should see how long it takes me to send a text, because everything must be spelled and punctuated correctly. You'll never catch me sending "C U l8er"!

  13. Oh my! I found some kindred spirits! I too cannot stand the plethora of bad grammar and word usage in contemporary America. I was taught proper English and use it despite 1) living in the Southeastern USA where slang abounds, and 2) having a European born mother. I don't accept the ESL excuse either. My mother uses impeccable English!

    I point much of the blame for today's under 30 generation to poor education and the availability of the computer and word-processing programs. Excessive dependence on spell and grammar checking programs guarantees that incorrect word usage and many apostrophe mistakes will go uncorrected because the checking software does not detect such errors. No computer program will ever replace the human mind!

    PS. Even I will catch myself making apostrophe errors every now and then--and I have done a lot of technical writing and editing! Shame on me!

  14. Former English teacher, here ;}
    You tell them, Miranda!
    Couldn't have said it better, myself.

  15. Unfortunately bad grammar has got into the system and is self perpetuating. If the teachers don't speak correctly, how can one expect the children to do so. Grrrrrrrrr!

    Yet another one is 'to' and 'from', how many times do we hear 'different to'.

    Hubby has another little trick for this one....he spreads his arms out wide and says 'different from', then brings his fingers together with 'similar to'!

    Makes it so easy to remember.It's funny that no one says 'similar from'!

  16. Indeed, when the media (print and broadcast) use poor grammar and spelling, we can hardly expect our students to learn correct usage...anyone ever have their students correct newpaper articles? Last week I read a sindicated column by a physician who spelled 'amoeba' as 'ameba'...MOAN!

  17. Here, here! I second that.

    I'm an EFL Teacher, so I completely get where you're coming from.

    I also have to agree with Fox's post - I too, know the rules and still make my share of mistakes.

    It seems the older I get, and the more the English language changes, it's hard to remember... is it this way? Or that way?

    Post on my friend!