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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Help Stamp Out Weedy Word Forms (Warning: Word Crank on Soapbox)

Let’s start with the simplest apostrophe error first. Plural nouns do not have apostrophes, with the exception--and even this is in flux--of letters and numbers. Single letters, e.g. p’s and q’s, 6’s and 7’s, take the apostrophe, longer strings, e.g., 1960s, etc. do not. Correction to yesterday's post as it appeared: Maiya has reminded me that only single letters and numbers need apostrophes, which makes sense upon reflection. The plural of the letter ‘a’ without an apostrophe would look like the word ‘as,’ whereas ABCs is unambiguous as it stands. I still seem to remember numerical decades taking apostrophes in my younger days, e.g., 1950’s, but Maiya is correct that current usage (she says going back at least 30 years) is to omit the apostrophe, so write that decade as 1950s to avoid the copy editor's pencil. Just goes to show how we can keep each other on our toes. Thanks, Maiya!

But apostrophes can still be confusing, and people worry about leaving one out where they should have put one in, so the little squiggly superscript comma gets thrown into all kinds of situations where it doesn’t belong. When you see a sign for a “Farmer’s Market,” don’t go by the punctuation and expect to find one lone farmer. Similarly, it’s unlikely that an event sponsored by the “Lion’s Club” is being hosted by a single Lion. And when the sign says, “No Dog’s Allowed” or “No camera’s, please,” you can mentally delete those apostrophes, too. In each of these cases, a simple unadorned plural is what the writer intended. Several (possibly many) farmers, a group of lions, no (i.e., not one!) dogs or cameras!

Plural noun: no apostrophe (unless a single letter or number is standing in for a noun).

Possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes, either. My, our, your, his, her, their. Carry the lack of inappropriate decoration in these words over to his, hers, yours, theirs, its.

In short, just because a word ends with an ‘s’ doesn’t mean it needs an apostrophe!

Here’s where you do need it:

(1) Use an apostrophe when two words are joined in a contraction (do not = don’t; is not = isn’t, it is = it's, etc., including the first word in my sentence above, here + is = here’s);
(2) Use an apostrophe to show possession with a noun, common or proper (the tree’s leaves, the sun’s warmth, Sarah’s dish, Pamela’s bookstore, etc.).

In summary, yes, possession is sometimes indicated with an apostrophe and sometimes not, but the distinction is simple: possessive nouns take the apostrophe, possessive pronouns do not.

Then just keep in mind that the apostrophe in a contraction indicates a letter left out (such as the ‘i’ in ‘is’ or the ‘o’ in ‘not’).

There are a few special cases left out of this discussion, but for the sake of correcting 99% of common errors I’ve gone for the broad brushstrokes. Many years ago, I worked in a very boring office for a very dull boss. One day, he surprised me by saying something I found interesting. You may think this remark of his mind-numbingly dull, but I’m interested in language, and you have to know the kind of thing he usually said, word for word from day to the next. The unusual, interesting observation was: “We may see the disappearance of the apostrophe in our lifetime.” Little did that man anticipate that apostrophes would proliferate like spotted knapweed, popping up everywhere!

So don't be guilty! Nip those inappropriate apostrophes in the bud! Do not propagate! Your old high school English teacher will sleep better at night, knowing that you are doing your part.

Postscript: I've gone back into this post to add the most misunderstood pair of words related to this subject, its/it's. I hope you can see the difference! The cat drank all its milk. It's too late to give the kitten any. Possessive vs. contraction. See?


Maiya Willits said...

As it happens, I just got my new copy of the AP Stylebook today, and have been paging through it, so this is all very fresh in my own Word Crank mind. Your point in the first paragraph about letters being an exception to the apostrophe rule is correct, except that only applies for SINGLE letters (like p's and q's). When the noun is actually MULTIPLE letters, it doesn't take an apostrophe. Thus it is VIPs, ABCs, etc.

And numbers, I must point out, do not actually take an apostrophe for pluralizing. It is 1960s, 747s, low 20s, etc.

upwoods said...

Pamela, I read your apostrophe discussion very carefully. Twice. Tried to imagine in which ways I might murder or proliferate apostrophes'. ha ha, just kiddin' I know that apostrophe shouldn't be caught dead at the end of that sentence! I hope others read this very attentively and apply that apostrophe appropriately.

P. J. Grath said...

Maiya, I would say that the number business is still in transition and is, at this stage, a style decision, and obviously AP style has come down on the more recent side of the question. I wonder how long ABCs has been preferred over ABC's? Language is always in flux, which frustrates a lot of people who want hard and fast rules. But did a plural noun EVER use an apostrophe? Can anyone find an instance?

Kathy, your apostrophe indicates a missing letter, in this case the 'g' that would otherwise appear at the end of the present participle. No problem. The sentence should have had a period at the end, but as editing is impossible (as far as I've been able to figure out) when leaving comments, I cut others the slack I hope they cut me.

Sometime in the future I'll tackle pronouns. Lots of errors there--again, made by people concerned to avoid one mistake and toppling into another....

Maiya Willits said...

I'm with you that the language is always in transition, absolutely no doubt about it. However, the AP Stylebook has held fast to the rules I mentioned for some 30 previous edition was a 1980 volume, and shows no changes to this particular issue.

P. J. Grath said...

Maiya, I'm yielding to your 1980 and following years correction and have edited my post accordingly. Whatever the usage was 40+ years ago (whether my memory of that is accurate or flawed) is beside the point. As it does, inexorably, he caravan is moving on. I appreciate your reading my blog and, always, your comments.

Karen said...
Here are a couple of sites featuring misused quotation marks.

Perhaps you should follow this post with help on "quotation marks." :-)

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Karen. I looked at the unnecessary quotation blog, and it's pretty funny. Those errors crack me up, too. I'm not sure if you are trying to bust me for this or not. If I were putting the words on a sign, I would not use quotation marks. I used them here to indicate what I have seen on signs. Use vs. mention. Similarly, we don't put diacritical marks around letters when we use them in words, but when we're talking about a letter it's different. No? Yes? Thanks for the links, Karen.

Karen said...

No not trying to bust you, I am a very picky grammarian and just spent the afternoon proofing the newsletter for an organization, fixing such things as the use of "between" when "among" is called for. I find it important. Sigh.

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, I learned word crankiness at a tender age from my parents. Split infinitives drove my mother crazy, and double negatives were the bane of my father’s existence. My mom hammered that ‘r’ in ‘February’ into me. My dad did not, however, hold hard and fast to the rule (a recent historical imposition) against a preposition at the end of the sentence. He liked this little verse: “The language has a rule absurd/which I would call an outworn myth:/A preposition is a word/you mustn’t end a sentence with.” He also quoted someone (Winston Churchill???) in a sentence that ended “up with which I will not put.” A bit strained, n’est-ce pas?

Is there an organization for word cranks? Do word cranks join organizations?

Speaking of editing, I just read something in a published book last night that made my hair stand on end. First a 90% statistic was given, followed by a remark about "the remaining 20%"! Not when I was in school, it wasn't!