Saturday, December 17, 2016

Afraid of Apostrophes? Fear No More!

I admit it: I’ve always been a grammar geek. In the second grade, I had missed a few days of school for whatever reason. When I came back to the fold, the teacher was going over the proper way to use apostrophes to show possession and told us that there would be a quiz following the recap. Was I not exempt from this quiz because of my absence? No. “It’s easy to learn, Paul.” Okay. I understood the concept of adding an apostrophe-s to words and names, but my young mind could not grasp the s-apostrophe, or plural possessive. I had a mini panic attack. I was a smart kid; why could I not figure this out? I realized that missing a few days of school could change your life and make you a dunce (I vowed never to be sick again). The knot in my stomach tightened, and it felt like the time during recess when Lee Ann Nolan punched me in the gut after I took a cookie from her. I remember taking it from her because I liked her and wanted her to notice me. (I was “straight” back then.) Maybe this is why as a middle-aged adult I don’t like to be noticed too much. (Psychologists, any input?)

Back to the quiz. Because I did not like feeling like a little dummy, I vowed to figure this stuff out ASAP. So, I asked Sheri, the girl next to me, to explain it. (I didn’t want to ask the teacher because I felt she was a little mean that day, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of the entire reading group.) So Sheri told me in a sweet whisper that whenever a word is plural, you just add an apostrophe. Of course I tried to analyze her simple instruction, which made me panic even more when I was confronted with the word “children.” Christ, if I was a child who couldn’t even figure out how to show possession to the word that represented my peers, what kind of a child was I? So I took a deep breath (I knew breath control could make or break you), turned to her again, and she saw me about to cry. Trying to ameliorate my addled temperament, she quickly added, “If the word ends in an s, just add the apostrophe.

Okay, I could grasp that quick and efficient dictum. So, when it was time for the quiz, every time I saw an s, I added the little apostrophe. Phew.

For the remainder of the school day, whenever I had a free moment, I looked at all the examples of possession in my workbook, and finally my brain was able to grasp the concept.

Why am I telling you this tale? Because if a six-year-old can figure out how to use a damn apostrophe in less than four hours, so can you.

If you don’t know this already, the British are notorious for not understanding how to use apostrophes. Lynne Truss wrote extensively about this in her cute book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, excoriating green grocers for adding apostrophes to, well, just about everything. Says Truss, “I don’t know how bad things are in America, but in the UK I cannot emphasize it enough: standards of punctuation are abysmal.” She goes on to list some funny examples of improperly apostrophized signs, my favorite being “XMA’S TREES.” (That one defies logic.)

British author Simon Griffin, a man after my own heart, believes that you can learn the proper way to use apostrophes. He recently wrote a wee book called Fucking Apostrophes. From the get-go, Griffin tries to understand why the British populace cannot understand the difference between its and it’s. (Here’s a little quiz: can you use both properly in the same sentence?)

Says Griffin: “The basic rules of fucking apostrophes are, as you’d expect, quite basic, but as the English language has evolved, so the use of fucking apostrophes has become more and more complex.” (Every time the word “apostrophe” appears, it is preceded by the word “fucking.” Trust me, it works.)

He goes on to state: “The fact is that the rules for using fucking apostrophes have changed massively over time, and different people have adopted different versions. Just look at King’s Cross, which is written both with and without a fucking apostrophe; or Waterstones, which dropped its fucking apostrophe; or Hear’Say, who used a fucking apostrophe to make them look groovy.” (This reminds of the time when Barney’s dropped its apostrophe because Ivan Chermayeff, its adman, thought it would look better in its logo, hovering above “New York.” It does.)

All of these misplaced apostrophes suggest that as English was changing from an oral to a written language, writers and scholars and printers all had different ideas for how to use an apostrophe. As the language progressed, and grammar rules became more rigid, the general literate population became confused. I imagine the frustration of those who truly gave a crap: “When do I add that squiggly, arrogant little bugger?”

Here are a few of my favorite examples from Fucking Apostrophes. They are cheeky, irreverent, and tossed off in a manner so nonchalant that I can’t help but love this man.
  • “You’re an idiot = You are an idiot.”
  • “He’d like you to buy him some cocaine. = “He would like you to buy him some cocaine.”
  • “The children’s wage was low. (Not ‘The childrens/childrens’ wage…’)”
Alas, Mr. Griffin and his editors are not perfect: At the end of the book, we read the following two examples explaining the difference between your and you’re:
  • “Your test results are back Mr. Armstrong.”
  • “You’re next Mr. Wiggins.”
Can you spot the errors? Someone should write a book called Fucking Commas.

Oh, as we enter the holiday season, please don’t add a fucking apostrophe to your last name on your family’s holiday card. If your last name is Smith, you are not the Smith’s; you are the Smiths. If your last name is Griffiths, you are not the Griffiths’ or the Griffiths’s; you are the Griffithses. Heck, if your last name is Papadopoulos, you are not the Papadopoulos’s; you are the Papadopouloses. Yes, it looks weird, but that’s the way it is. Better right than looking like a fucking idiot.

Have you thought of a sentence using it’s/its? Here’s my example: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and its celebrants can’t wait for the holiday season to be over. 


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