February 13, 2010

Let's stop apostrophe abuse!

Lorraine Collins offers her Black Hills Pioneer column to us every two weeks or so, and we always enjoy them. We trust you do, too.

The big black headline in the newspaper said, "Resident's brace for storm." I wondered who this resident was and what his brace looked like. I don't know why the headline writer was so determined to add an apostrophe between the t and the s, but maybe it results from what seems to be a widespread paranoia about the apostrophe. People seem to be afraid of it, and they aren't sure just what to do with it, so every now and then they shut their eyes and fling it onto the page, hoping it lands in the right place.

On the theory that knowledge overcomes fear, as a public service I thought I might spend a moment or two today helping folks get acquainted with the apostrophe so they can learn to live with it or, sometimes, without it. I presume the headline writer meant to indicate more than one resident was bracing for a storm. Actually, the plural of "resident" is simply "residents" with no apostrophe required. Apostrophes are used in the English language for only two reasons: to indicate a letter has been left out, as in "don't" for "do not" or to indicate possession, as in "the resident's snow shovel."

It may seem odd that I'm so concerned about the apostrophe when so much other damage is being done to the English language as we used to know it. We used to worry about the degradation of language by using the lingo common to e mail, but now we have Twitter and texting syntax to worry about. Some believe these are going to be the ruination of eloquence and poetry if the trend keeps up. Can you imagine Romeo texting to Juliet, "LU! UR 6Y!"

Although I may be fighting a rearguard action in a lost war, I believe the apostrophe is the single most abused and misused punctuation mark in the English language. Some aficionados of the apostrophe have become so concerned that they formed the Apostrophe Protection Society. I'm not an official member of the society, but want to do my bit to protect the apostrophe anyway. So this is my lecture on why the apostrophe exists and what we should do with it. Please pay attention as I do not want to go through this again.

One problem folks have occurs when they want to indicate that more than one person possesses something, such as a house, so we see signs such as "The Smith's" by a front door.

Actually, this means that a single person named Smith lives there, and maybe his or her first name is "The." If the Smiths want to indicate that more than one Smith possesses the house, they should put the apostrophe after the letter s. A sign saying The Smiths' indicates the reality of the situation. But people seem even more troubled by the apostrophe in these cases.

So my solution is to simply have the sign saying "The Smiths" with no apostrophe whatever, indicating that The Smiths live here and never mind who owns the house. Another solution would be to just have a sign that says "Bob and Betty Smith". No apostrophe required and it offers more information anyway, to the guy who comes to the door wanting to sell a vacuum cleaner. He can say, "Hello, Betty, may I show you a nice vacuum cleaner?"

One last word: of all the trouble dealing with apostrophes, the worst seems to be deciding between "it's" and "its". The thing to do is to think of "its" as being just like other words indicating possession, such as his, her, our, your, or my, none of which has an apostrophe. So one can say his glove, her coat, its dog house. To put an apostrophe in the word indicates that a letter has been left out, as in "It's a really cold day" or "If that woman doesn't shut up about the apostrophe, it's going to drive me mad."

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at collins1@rushmore.com.


cp said...

You have to draw the line somewhere - you can't just let the abusers of English have free rein. (That's right, REIN!)

Thank you!!

Douglas said...

Best way to not misuse apostrophes is mostly to not use them. "it is" is not any harder to type or space-wasting than "it's".

Now, if you can just start a campaign against gunnna for going to both of which are better replace by "will", and go after the distinction between "fewer" and "less".......oh well, nevermind.

carolann0922 said...

Finally! At last! Someone else besides me noticed the horrific use of an apostrophe. I salute you! I just saw an job add, that used Saturday's as times when you may have to work. I see these kinds of mistakes daily, and it makes me cringe. I'm glad I'm not the only one that has noticed the problem! Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I see this abuse daily and it, too, makes me cringe! Is there also a "Comma Protection Society"? Plenty of abuse there as well!
Great article - love it!