My Poor Little Misunderstood Friend, the Apostrophe

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love it when I find a writer who cares just as much about English usage and craft as I do. I found my self-proclaimed stickler sister in Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She had me from page one:


 A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.”

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.

My original idea was to write one blog about both Truss’s book and Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, but there’s too much to say about both of these amazing punctuation books to cram in here. And while you might be thanking me for not subjecting you to such a long post, please don’t hate me for what I’m about to do.


Lukeman never addresses apostrophes in his book, and I can only assume it’s because A Dash of Style is about, well, style, and apostrophes aren’t things that should be thrown around like optional commas – although that doesn’t stop people from trying. (I actually do know of one stylistic apostrophe choice, but I’ll get to that later.) Lynne Truss, on the other hand, has such a wonderful chapter devoted to the oft misused and abused apostrophe that I decided it could use a post all to itself. What did I do to deserve this? you might be thinking, but I promise that what Truss has to say on the subject is both humorous and informative, thus worth the read.


The apostrophe (like the hyphen) is one of those few punctuation marks that is necessary when we learn how to spell; we simply couldn’t (or shouldn’t) write many of our words without it. Some people, when confused, might throw a comma in “men,s restroom,” for example, which is utter nonsense. Commas don’t go in words. Ever. But the person writing “men,s” knows that something needs to happen. “Mens restroom” just looks empty.


Following are the rules of apostrophe usage, along with examples, as Lynne Truss spells them out on pages 40-45 (American edition):


1 It indicates a possessive in a singular noun

For instance, “The girl’s doll.” What if, however, there are more than one girl? Then the apostrophe follows the “s”: “The girls’ dolls.” And finally, for those tricky words that are plural but don’t end in an “s” (children, women, men), the apostrophe precedes the “s”: “The children’s dolls.”


2 It indicates time or quantity

Truss’s favorite example, which she uses throughout the book as an indication of how far our society has slipped in proper punctuation usage, is the movie Two Weeks Notice. This is incorrect. It should be Two Weeks’ Notice.

Film poster for Two Weeks Notice - Copyright 2...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

3 It indicates the omission of figures in dates

I was born in the spring of ’83. Not too difficult to grasp.


4 It indicates the omission of letters

Ah, the contraction. This can be anything from the combination of “it” and “is” to abbreviations, such as “int’l” instead of “international.” And here’s a little extra that Truss has to say on the matter:


To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked             grave. (43-44)

Bless her.


Spelling at its worst 047224

Spelling at its worst (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5 It indicates strange, non-standard English

Remember how I said there’s a stylistic use for apostrophes? That’s where this one comes in, and I’ll elaborate later.


6 It features in Irish names such as O’Neill and O’Casey

Okay, that one is just obvious.


7 It indicates the plurals of letters

You don’t get straight As, you get straight A’s. This rule, in my opinion, is there to indicate how to pronounce what you’re reading. While I don’t think you would confuse Bs and B’s, my example above shows that with vowels, the pronunciation could vary and change the meaning (or obscure the meaning, anyway), so it’s best to stay consistent.


And finally, going along with #7,


8 It also indicates the plural of words

As an editor, this one comes in quite handy. I might write in a critique, “There were too many and’s in that paragraph.”


So where did this troublesome little mark come from, to begin with? On page 37, Truss writes:


The English language first picked up the apostrophe in the 16th century. The word in Greek means “turning away”, and hence “omission” or “elision”. In classical texts, it was used to mark dropped letters, as in t’cius for “tertius”; and when English printers adopted it, this was still its only function.

It picked up more tasks over the centuries, as the above rules show. Perhaps it is because the little mark is expected to do so much that it is so often confused with other marks or omitted altogether.


As for the stylistic use of the apostrophe that I’ve mentioned, I’ve read books by well-established authors in which apostrophes are omitted in dialogue when the people speaking drop letters at the end of words (such as “g”). Say Joe Character has a strong Southern drawl and not the best grammar. For instance, “I was going to the park the other day, walking the dog, minding my own business, when this kid on a skateboard came out of nowhere and almost ran me over.” Written like this, it’s difficult hear the accent. So let’s try: “I was goin’ to the park th’other day, walkin’ the dog, mindin’ m’own business, when this kid on a skateboard come out of nowhere and almost run me over.” The authors who choose to stylistically drop apostrophes would not place them in the words with the missing g’s. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe the apostrophe’s presence looks a little too formal for someone who’s speaking improperly. Either way, as long as we can all still tell what the words are supposed to be without the apostrophes, it’s an okay choice to make (although I’m too much of a stickler to do it myself). The other time authors might do this is if a first person narrator has an accent and narrates as such throughout a story. Here, though, I must warn against giving characters too much of an accent. They often require words that are misspelled to match their mis-pronunciations, and that can end up sounding affected and fake. J.K. Rowling did a great job with Hagrid in her Harry Potter books, but if you’ve ever tried to decipher George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion without help, you might never be able to get past the first few pages.


Did I make myself pretty clear, or are you more confused than when you started? I hope that I’ve encouraged rather than discouraged you. Be vigilant about your punctuation because it matters! And, of course, Lynne Truss has much more to say about the matter in Eat, Shoots, & Leaves, which I hope you will pick up. And since she inspired this post, I will let her have the last word.


We lovers of the apostrophe will not stand by and let it be abolished — not because we are dinosaurs who drink tea out of saucers (interesting image) but because we appreciate the way the apostrophe has for centuries graced our words and illuminated our meaning. It is no fault of the apostrophe that some of our words need so much help identifying themselves. Indeed, it is to the credit of the apostrophe that it can manage the task. Those spineless types who talk  about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the pun is very much intended. The next day after the abolition of the apostrophe, imagine the scene. Triumphant abolitionist sits down to write, “Good-bye to the Apostrophe; we’re not missing you a bit!” and finds that he can’t. Abolish the apostrophe and it will be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it. (66-67)

Call Me the Grammar Nazi

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Opinions differ about who originally said the above maxim. Many think it was Abraham Lincoln, and there’s a slightly different version attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, I think he (or she) would throw his hands up in despair if he saw what’s happening in social media these days. And in this instance, I’m speaking particularly of grammar.

Here’s the thing: a properly spelled and punctuated status update could very well contain nothing but idiocy; however, it appears better informed than a good argument that expresses itself poorly with terrible grammar. The ones that really drive me nuts are the school teachers who post things with really bad (and obvious) spelling errors. And you’re teaching our kids? I think. No wonder everyone complains about American education.

Not only do I take speaking and writing properly as a personal responsibility, but I also consider a thing of pride. And pride goeth before a fall; yes, I know. But I don’t want to be a poor representative of my education or my upbringing. English is my first language; it’s my job to know it.

Maybe I’m taking this a little too seriously. It could be that spelling comes to me naturally or that I have a gift with tongues. I fondly remember our spelling bee games in elementary school, which not only weeded out the bad spellers but prepared those of us who were going on to the real thing. In the fifth grade, the word that stumped me was “souvenir,” and although I spelled it wrong (I think I put an “i” instead of the “e”), I asked for the correct spelling and have known it ever since.

I wonder, though, about the other kids that didn’t make it. When they misspelled whichever words got them out, were they relieved that they didn’t have to do it anymore? Did they shrug it off and never give it another thought? Or did they do what I did and learn the proper spelling?

I know there is probably a certain percent of the population who don’t care one bit but still spell correctly because they’ve unconsciously absorbed and retained the information. So where does that leave the bad spellers who really want to get the words right but can’t ever seem to quite make it? I think that this minority is shrinking and being taken over by the shruggers, the people who think that it doesn’t much matter anyway.

Those of us who call ourselves writers should know better. More than that, we should do better. Especially considering the ease with which our words make it into one form of media or another, we should set ourselves apart by making our prose as clean and intelligible as possible.

I know of some famous authors who, without the aid of excellent editors, could never spell their way out of a paper bag. And I suppose I can believe that a bestselling author does not a good speller make. After all, there was a time before writing, when traditions were kept orally, through storytelling. There must have been countless storytellers in our world’s history who never needed to know teem and team are spelled differently.

On the other hand, this should not be a cop out. We do have a system of writing now, proper sentence structures and various forms of punctuation that have developed over the centuries as it became more common for people to read, and reading material became more accessible.

From road signs to advertisements, from books to newspapers, Internet columns to menus to instruction manuals. . . and the plethora of other ways we use words to get meanings across to others, I’m here to say it does matter. And no, I’m not going to pass by a restaurant for advertising “from scratch pizza’s” (I’ll pass by for dietary reasons instead), but I’ll be embarrassed for the person that created the menus. . . and even more embarrassed for the majority of the patrons who simply don’t notice. But as someone who reads cover letters on an almost daily basis, I always mentally move a candidate down a notch when he says he hopes his writing exceeds expectations, and the first sentence greets me with a big ol’ typo.

What in the world is the solution? Education is a big part. Caring is another, and I’m not quite sure how to make people care. In a culture where idiocy is applauded and can make you famous (just visit YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean), it’s a tough fight.

But while I’m preaching and feeling pessimistic, there is someone out there who put a little bit of a humorous spin on the whole “Grammar Nazi” thing. So check it out Why It’s Hard Being a Grammar Nazi, have a laugh, and then use a dictionary the next time you’re even the tiniest bit unsure about how to spell the plural of “hero.”

If It’s “Sing, Sang, Sung,” Why Isn’t It “Bring, Brang, Brung”?

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

Or “think, thank, thunk,” for that matter.

The more I study and learn about the English language, the more I realize that there are more exceptions than there are rules. Still, that doesn’t deter me from sinking my teeth into the many conundrums of the English language. From the tender age of seven, when I heard a boy in my second grade class say “brung,”  I have been a grammar snob.

By the fifth grade, my English teacher introduced an exercise in which we had to copy a few sentences off the classroom’s overhead projector, inserting corrections where there were mistakes in her copy. One day, I raised my hand and pointed out that “weird” was spelled wrong. I remember she squinted at the exercise, as if wondering what I meant. She had it spelled “wierd” and hadn’t even caught it. I explained that “weird” was weird because it broke the i-before-e-except-after-c rule.

Ah, the English language, so full of idiosyncrasies. It’s no wonder foreigners have a difficult time mastering it, not to mention natives. It is an ever-morphing language, and many words that were used in one way a hundred years (or more) ago have completely different uses now.

One of my college professors touted the Oxford English Dictionary (an amazing resource, by the way). It doesn’t just give definitions but the etymology of words, as well. Her example was how you might compliment a girl by saying she is a doll. This wasn’t always the case, however. An early definition of “doll” was actually “prostitute.”

And that doesn’t even start to cover regional or national differences. When I realized that the Harry Potter series had different word choices and phrases in the Bloomsbury editions (the original ones printed in England), I immediately bought every single one because I wanted the authentic versions. I had no idea that “pudding” meant “dessert.” And, in Order of the Phoenix, I almost busted a gut when George Weasley commented (in a conversation about fifth year exams), “Fred and I managed to keep our peckers up somehow” (205). I get the feeling that that doesn’t mean the same thing across the pond as it does over here, otherwise it wouldn’t have been in a young adult novel.

If you’re a wordsmith, editor, or just flummoxed by this whole language thing, I recommend Grammar Girl or this list of words that aren’t. Or if you feel like throwing your hands in the air and giving up, remember Gallagher? His video will entertain you, at least, even if it doesn’t provide all the answers. And I would love to hear about your favorite misused word or phrase. You never know—we could popularize it enough to get it accepted into the dictionary.