Friday, October 13, 2006

Apostrophe Catastrophe

Right before heading out to Arkansas, I received a wonderful email from Sister Karen from Ashland/ New Liberty PBC about my post on mispronunciations. She added a few other doozies to the list of commonly mispronounced words. And, at the end of her note, she identified another pet peeve: the misuse of apostrophes. I was floored - not only because it is also a big pet peeve of mine but also because it was the original subject that I had in mind for what became the "What Did You Just Say?" post. (The pronunciations just won out because of a lack of time.)

I had begun making the point that most of us accept what our parents and teachers say to us (in pronunciation) and follow the rules (of grammar and punctuation) that our parents and teachers teach to us. And, those rules seem to stick - no matter how wrong the teacher is, no matter how many years pass, and no matter how many new sets of rules are published in the world. For instance, to this day, I still put a comma after the last item in a list right before a conjunction.
...lions, tigers, and bears... vs.
...lions, tigers and bears...

I know that new rules for writing (and, specifically, lists) have been created, but this first version is what was taught to me day after day in school and driven into my brain by many writing, grammar, and English teachers. It's a hard habit to break.

What I cannot understand, however, is the world's tendency to misuse, misplace, overuse, or omit apostrophes. Come on! They're our friends. Let's get to know them! The following is what I learned about apostrophes in grade school.

Apostrophes are used for two purposes: to show possession and to create a contraction.

Singular possession.
"hat of a boy" = boy's hat
"shoe the girl owns" = girl's shoe
Just add an 's after the singular noun who possesses the object. The same goes for proper names. Ex: Lydia's baseball, John's truck, etc.

Plural possession.
"room where the children sleep" = children's room
"organization for men" = men's organization
Again, just add an 's after the plural noun who possesses the object.

Plural or singular possession ending with S.
I learned there are exceptions when you speak of someone whose name ends in an s and that one should add only an apostrophe when showing possession. Ex: Chris' bible or the Reynolds' house. Today, however, it is now also accepted to add an 's: Chris's bible or the Reynolds's house. (I just prefer the former versions because that is how I was taught.)

Joint or separate possession.
Use "Jeff and Tracy's van is in the driveway." (joint ownership)
Use "Jeff's and Tracy's clothing is in the dryer." (separate ownership)

The apostrophe is also used to represent numbers that are omitted or letters that are left out when two words are joined together in a contraction.
'76 = 1976
'06 = 2006
can't = cannot
I'm = I am
let's = let us
she's = she is or she has
won't = will not

Note: One word can sometimes be a contraction and sometimes indicate possession.
Strem's blog is green. (The blog that belongs to Strem is green.)
Strem's adding a post to her blog. (Strem is adding a post...)

There are many who confuse the following words:
it's = it is and its = possession
who's = who is and whose = possession
they're = they are and their = possession
you're = you are and your = possession

I was surprised to find out that my teachers had taught me everything correctly (regarding apostrophes) according to several on-line grammar sources. However, I had never been taught what to do with plural signs, symbols, letters, or references to particular words. According to, the following sentences are written correctly.
Your f's look like b's when you write.
Your speech had too many uh's in it.
Your 3's and 5's need to be clearer.
Always spell out your and's and don't use &'s in your writing.
There are too many etc's in this paper.

I was never taught this last set of rules, so I'm a little puzzled. Were you? Usually, I would have written the first sentence like this: Your fs look like bs when you write.

This is on my mind especially often right now because I cannot begin to estimate how many signs I've seen this week about "Pumpkin's for Sale" or "Large Pumpkins! Their Right Here!" or "Mum's, 4 for $10." It's even more perplexing when large businesses pay big money to have permanent signs made with these types of errors.

Disclaimer: This post is probably loaded with grammatical errors, so I probably shouldn't be the one to create a post on punctuation or grammar. Please forgive me for any errors that I've made. At the same time, please feel free to note any funny signs or apostrophe uses that you've seen lately.


lydia said...

The misuse of apostrophes is also a pet peeve of mine. After posting my most recent entry (Getting into God's Stride), I realized that I had misused an apostrophe when referencing Oswald Chambers' book. At the time I was too tired to bother to change it, but after reading your post, I quickly edited the post.

strem said...

I didn't even notice. I am not too familiar with him, even though I have heard a lot about the book. So, I probably thought his name was Oswald Chamber and that you had punctuated properly!

Dani said...

It's my understanding with the b's and f's that you can also off set them "b"s and "f"s. Your choice.

Sandy-san said...

After typing fast and furious, I have made mistakes with apostrophes, and of course, it's usually after the fact. It drives me nuts, because I am SURE someone has noticed and is bristling! =)

A HUGE pet peeve of mine is when someone types loose when it should be lose, or vice versa. *cringes*


Why do people spell definately when it should be definitely? *fingernails down a blackboard* Is there such a word as finate?! Hello? Hello?!

I don't consider myself a grammar police, but good gravy! =\

Piano Man said...

We have a local buffet restaurant in our town that used to have their silverware bins respectively labeled Knive's, Fork's and Spoon's.

mikee said...

THANK YOU for this post! I find apostrophe abuse irksome as well. I just don't understand the confusion. Most perplexing is when I see someone abbreviate a year incorrectly.
1976 = 76'
What's up with that?

JStrode said...

Thought I'd "way in" regarding incorrect usage of certain words. It's 'buck naked' and not 'butt naked'.

Nice blog!

strem said...

I must admit, there is not often an occasion for me to use that term. But, this is an important distinction. In trying to study the origins of that phrase, there are quite a few different theories about how it originated. No matter the reference, it was added to dictionaries between 1920 and 1930. Very interesting!

Siren said...

One of my best girlfriends and I are self-described grammar Nazis and we lose our minds over misplaced apostrophes!! It's completely normal for one of us to call the other ranting about a sign on some business we happened to drive by. The reigning champion is a sign that says: Tattoo's (think about it - are you really going to trust this guy to mark you body permanently if he can't spell his own sign right?)

Once I became a professional writer my obsession only got worse - now I've even got a shelf devoted to grammar and style guides that I refer to on a regular basis. It wasn't that long ago I won a battle over spaces between words and em-dashes with a graphic designer I was on a brochure with because of my relentless attacked, armed with Strunk & White and The AP Style Guide. (For the record, both forms are correct and it's personal preference.)

Re: lion, tigers(,) and bears...
Placing a comma after the last word before the "and" in a list is called "serial commas." Some editors HATE them, some insist on them. I'm not a fan, but sometimes a particular sentence's structure makes their use logical. Both forms are technically correct, although at the moment the reason why eludes me and I'm too lazy to go look it up. It might be one of those things that's a British versus American convention (like putting a period outside quotes at the end of a sentence, which I personally prefer but is only acceptable if you're British).

Re: B's and F's versus Bs and Fs
From what I've read recently both are correct, but the convention is shifting to Bs and Fs because it makes more sense since the apostrophe does imply a possessive form.