Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

An Apostrophic Declaration

Ah, the apostrophe. It's such a useful little blip, always there when you need to take a verbal shortcut or indicate possession. Alas, it is also a much-abused, much-misused piece of punctuation. After observing for years, in horror and sometimes disbelief, the widespread mistreatment this little punctuation mark has endured, I have finally decided that the time has come for me to speak out on its behalf. Think me nerdy if you will, but the truth must be spoken regarding the apostrophe.

First, an exploration of why the apostrophe is so widely misused. I believe it is due to one of three reasons:

1) Most people misapply the apostrophe merely because they feel that they should know how to use it and are therefore embarrassed to ask when they're not sure. They think to themselves, "This is simplest, most elementary of grammatical rules....blast my shameful ignorance!" and, after pulling at their hair and dashing their heads repeatedly against the palms of their hands, they scribble out a note ("Dearest Emeline, Please remember to feed the cat's") and quickly walk away, hoping against all hope that they had used the apostrophe correctly. And poor, dear Emeline finds the note later and wonders, "Feed the cat's what? What does the cat have that needs feeding? Why didn't Charles finish this note? Whatever could be wrong?" and then she swoons a little and perhaps faints, knocking her head against the table. And then the cat, hungry from not being fed, wanders into the kitchen and, seeing Emeline lying unconscious on the floor and taking her for dead, proceeds to gnaw off her right hand, the very hand that Emeline used for bowing her cello. Now, you must know that Emeline is a very gifted musician, and she has been using her talents to surreptitiously earn the money the family needs in order to keep up appearances by employing a full staff of servants. And now, with her bowing hand completely missing, the Vallswoop family is going to have to admit that its very old money is, at last, coming to an end, that the flow has turned into a trickle, that there will have to be BMWs for Christmas instead of Rolls-Royces, that vacations will be taken to Mexico and not Morocco, and that soon the family will have to admit that they are nothing more than middle-class.

Er. Ahem. Where were we? Ah, yes. Reasons people can't seem to use apostrophes correctly.

2) Others follow the same rule for apostrophes as they do for commas: if there hasn't been one for a while in your writing, there is probably something wrong, so you should probably throw one in-- just in case. This fear-governed grammatical technique generally yields sentences like this:

This fear-governed, grammatical technique, generally yield's sentences like this.

3) Others fail to employ the apostrophe properly because they simply don't care whether it is put to its proper use or not. And to those people I say: I hope someday a cat gnaws off your right hand.

But to those of you who care, I want you to know that if you or someone you know struggles with the apostrophe, either because of shame or because of fear, there is help. You can start right now, by reading this blog post.

Now, before I get on to the meat of this post, I want you to know that I'm not clinging to an arbitrary rule for the sake of correctness. I'm emphasizing the importance of correctly using the apostrophe because the apostrophic rules create clarity, and clarity leads to good communication, and everyone who's ever been married or run a business knows how important it is to communicate well.

And so, onward:

The apostrophe exists primarily to do two things:

1) Make a noun possessive. ("My mom's kitchen is being remodeled." "My niece's bedroom looks pink.")
2) Indicate the omission of a letter or letters. This occurs frequently-- but not always-- in the creation of a contraction. ("You're a nice doggie." "I love rock 'n' roll.")

That's it. Just one of those two things. So if you're ever thinking about putting an apostrophe into a word, ask yourself two simple questions: Is this apostrophe indicating possession? Is it showing that I've left out a letter? And if you can't answer "yes" to at least one of these questions, please--I beg of you!--leave the apostrophe out. Now, that said, I must acknowledge that there are infrequent occasions that might require the apostrophe to be used for a third, less common purpose, which is to

3) Assist in making a word plural. However, it does this if and only if severe confusion would ensue were it not present. I want to make it very clear that the apostrophe very rarely, almost never, only once in the greatest of whiles makes a word plural. There are a few exceptions to the don't-use-apostrophes-when-making-stuff-plural rule, which are generally brought on by the need for clarity or visual appeal. A few examples:

-"Remember to dot your i's and cross your t's!"
-"Here are a few do's and don'ts."
-"I have earned several PhD's in vastly different fields."

So I guess that means we should add a third question when evaluating whether or not the use of an apostrophe would be appropriate: If I don't insert an apostrophe, will my readers be confused? If the answer is no, if the word would be just fine without an apostrophe and it's not indicating possession or letter omission, leave it out.

Simple, right? Apparently not.

Everywhere I look, I see violations of these very simple rules.

First, people seem to struggle with the concept that apostrophes don't usually make plurals.

For example, a the Phillips 66 gas station down the street there is a sign stuck to the door that reads: "Puppy's for sale." Now, this sign would be just fine if the people were selling a single puppy: it could be read "Puppy is for sale." Sure, fine, whatever. Your puppy is for sale. But this particular sign has a picture tacked on it with MULTIPLE PUPPIES, which would imply that there are puppies for sale, not that Puppy is for sale.

Another one that I see all the time on barber shops and beauty salons:

"Walkin's welcome." (Walkin is welcome? Who is Walkin? Do you mean Christopher Walken? Why did you feel the need to welcome him, in particular?)
"Walk in's welcome." (Walk in is welcome? Is Walk in the name of that Chinese exchange student living with the Rogers family? Are you welcoming him to America?)

If what you're trying to say is that people in need of a haircut are welcome to stop in without an appointment, try creating a sign that simply says, "Walk-ins Welcome," because seriously, if you are going to pay a professional to make you a permanent sign, you might as well spend five minutes doing a Google search to ensure that the spelling and grammar are all correct. Or ask your freaky nerd neighbor to spend one minute reading it to ensure everything checks out. That's all you need to do.

A common error I see otherwise grammatically correct people make is to use the apostrophe to pluralize a last name. So let me just note here that if you are writing a letter to the Vallswoop family, it needs to be addressed to "The Vallswoops," NOT "The Vallswoop's," which would inevitably lead to confusion ("The Vallswoop's what? Why didn't they finish addressing this letter? Whatever could be wrong?") and possibly another fainting spell, etc.

Another one: It's the 1990s, not the 1990's. And when you're abbreviating it, you would write "the '90s" (the apostrophe is in front to indicate the the 19 has been omitted), NOT "the 90's." Or if you want to say that something happened back in 1985, you would write '85, NOT 85'.

Also, it's CDs, not CD's, though I will forgive you for this one, because it is kind of iffy.

So that's the pluralizing issue. The second issue that I see a lot of is an inability to deal with certain contractions, primarily "it's" and "you're."

And "it's" I completely understand. It's kind of strange. So this is one you'll just have to memorize. Just remember that "it's" ALWAYS means "it' is" or "it has." When "it" owns something, that something is simply "its." I know it would kind of make sense for it to be "it's," but it's not. So stop using it that way.

"You're," on the other hand, seems pretty straightforward to me. "Your" indicates possession; "You're" means "You are." That's it. And you're not really doing much for your case when you write something like, "I'm smart and your dumb."

So that's about it. And just so you don't think I'm alone in my freakiness regarding this topic, I thought I'd share the following quote from my 15th Edition Chicago Manual of Style, which, in its introduction to apostrophes, states that "feelings on these matters sometimes run high."

For more information on this important topic, please visit the Apostrophe Abuse website.


Nick Wheeler said...

We all know an apostrophe abuser whether we know we do or not. We must reach out to them.

Marsha Cox said...

What about using the apostrophe at the end of a name that ends in the letter "s", like Cummings? I'm pretty sure there is a rule about Cummings' being correct, although it is late at night after two very busy days at work and my mind can't think of a great example. I just didn't want that rule left out.

Leslie said...

Few things make me cringe more than walking into someone's home and seeing in huge, semipermanent vinyl letters, "Johnson's, est. 1998."

The last thing we need is another Emeline, people! Do your homework!

Leslie said...

It used to be common to omit the possessive s after any word that ended in an s (or z or x), but, as Chicago says, "that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many." Chicago's preference is to use the possessive s after any word that ends in s unless the s is unpronounced (Descartes'), the word is plural in form but singular in meaning (politics'), or the word is two or more syllables and ends in an eez sound (Euripides'). (There are also some "traditional" exceptions, like "for goodness' sake," etc.)

Rachel said...

Leslie, it pleases me so that you're quoting Chicago.

Rachel said...

Marsha, to clarify: If you were talking about something Mr. Williams owns, you would say that it is Mr. Cummings's thing. HOWEVER, if it belonged to the entire Cummings family, you would say it was the Cummings' thing.

Leslie said...

Chicago is my bible! (Well, the Bible is my bible, but Chicago is a close second.)

And I hate to be a stickler (what am I saying? I love to be a stickler), but if something belongs to the whole Cummings family, you would say it is the Cummingses' thing, making the proper noun plural and then possessive. And yes, it does sound/look a bit awkward, so really the best thing to do would be to rephrase the sentence to avoid the plural possessive.

I love these grammatical blog posts of yours, Rachel! Keep it up!

Rachel said...

Oh, Leslie, you are so right. That's totally what I meant to write, I just didn't. Dangit.

Leslie said...

No worries, my dear. That happens to me all the time, especially in Internet-land, where the tendency is to be quick and casual. At least your mistake probably won't lead to a fate like Emeline's. ;) (I laughed about that little story for SEVERAL minutes after leaving your blog.)

Karen said...

Rachel, just when I thought I new all they're was too no about apostrophe's, hear you come and clarify it even more! I actually learning something knew! Your hilarious! Thank's! ;)

Me :Þ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christen said...

Not confuse things, but I have also learned that in regards to things referred to by initials, one only uses an apostrophe if you include the periods; if the periods are omitted, the apostrophe should be as well.

For example, at work we have what is referred to as a Personal Action form or PA. If one were to write a sentence referring to multiple PA forms, you would say PAs as opposed to PA's. The apostrophe would only be included if you also included periods for the 'P' and 'A' -- P.A.'s. :)

Rachel said...

Christen, According to Chicago, you should NOT use an apostrophe if there are no periods in an all-capital-letter abbreviation (ie MAs). However, if there is a mixture of capitals and lowercase letters (as in PhD), people might be confused about whether the s is part of the acronym or a pluralizer, so it is recommended that an apostrophe be inserted (PhD's).

Anonymous said...

Your all bunche's of nerd's who neede to get out moar. Espeshally rachel


Lara said...

Love Abe's comment.

My maiden name is Hays. I remember being so frustrated as a child/teenager receiving treats from the neighbors addressed to the Hays' or Hays's or even the Hayses'. Drove me bonkers. I always smiled at those who avoided the trickery of it all by addressing something to the Hays Family. :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...