Friday, April 17, 2009

The Problem With Apostrophes

The Problems with Apostrophes
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2009

"Hey, Kid, you fancy yourself a grammarian, don't you?" asked Karl, my friend and literary curmudgeon.

Depends on who's asking, I said. And why.

"I mean, you keep up with developments in the language and writing and everything," said Karl. "You listen to those language podcasts and read blogs and articles about writing, right?"

Oh sure, just a few.

"Then what do you know about this new development with apostrophe-S"

What new development? You mean it's dating Paris Hilton kind of development, or it was just indicted on racketeering charges development?

Karl plonked his beer on the bar, then smacked down a sheaf of papers. We were at de Smedt's Belgian bar, watching the Belgian Rugby finals on satellite TV. Antwerp RC was being pummeled by the Brussels Barbarians.

"Lately I've been seeing more people using an apostrophe-S after words that end with 'S,' and I was wondering what you thought about it" said Karl with a sinister grin.

I stared at the paper for a minute. So? I said

"So?! I figured you'd be apoplectic over this," Karl looked a little disappointed. "Aren't you the one who's always telling me not to put an S on possessive words that already end in S?"

Always telling you? No, I'm not always telling you. I don't think I've ever mentioned it. Now, I'm always telling you to bring your wallet to our little outings. I'm always telling you to quit sticking me with the bar tab. I'm always telling you not to send text messages while you're driving. But I have never told you a thing about apostrophes.

Karl absent-mindedly patted his pockets for the wallet I knew wasn't there. "So what do you think about it?"

I think it's wrong, I said. You shouldn't put an apostrophe-S at the end of words that end with S.

But this article says you can. Like "James's ball" or "the Cincinnati Reds's catcher" or "Jesus's and Moses's robes."

Actually this says you wouldn't put an apostrophe-S at the end of Jesus' or Moses'?

Karl grabbed the papers from my hand. "That's dumb. What makes them so special?"

I stared blankly at Karl for a second. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Then why is everyone changing the rules all of a sudden? Seems like you grammarians are losing your grip on the language."

What do you mean, 'you grammarians?' We don't control the language. There's no language institute that dictates what our standard language usage should be.

"But we put an apostrophe-S at the end of all the other words. Why can't we use it on words that end with an S?" Karl said, plonking his beer on the bar again for emphasis.

You mean besides 'it looks stupid?'

"Stupid? That's pretty condescending, don't you think? Language is a living entity that changes with usage and as our society evolves."

I started getting a little annoyed. I plonked my own beer on the bar, sloshing some over the side. This kind of debate usually gets me a little steamed.

Maybe so, I nearly shouted, but language is a precious thing and is something that needs to be cared for. I don't want the English language to be ruined by people who learned to type on a cell phone, or think numbers are appropriate substitutes for entire words!

"See? You grammarians and your language rants. It's so cute when you stamp your little feet and wave your arms in the air."

Shut up. I did not wave or stamp.

"Then what are you getting so steamed up about?"

I don't know. I just get frustrated when people who don't care anything for the written word ruin it for everyone because they're so lazy. I mean, I've been seeing it more and more, but that doesn't make it right. Why does a bunch of people using language incorrectly mean we have to change what's accepted?

Karl started laughing. "Kid, I've been a writer for a lot of years, and never seen anyone get so upset about an apostrophe."

Stick around. Wait until you see me find one of those stupid printed signs with errant apostrophes or misspelled words.

"Have you ever corrected any of those signs?"

Yeah, I've been known to correct a few grammar mistakes on public signs, I said.

"Yep, that sounds like something you'd do," Karl said.

Oh, and you haven't?

Karl looked thoughtfully into his beer for a minute. "Let's just say I've had to say to someone, 'oh yeah? Well, I'm the LANGUAGE police,' and leave it at that."

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  1. Speaking of grammarians, there's a great site for Flame Warriors, which are basically caricatures of people who post on internet message boards. One of them is "Grammarian". Funny stuff.

  2. Interesting article. I've always preferred the lack of apostrophe-S after an S, for aesthetic reasons. As you say, it looks stupid.

    And why, pray tell, are more and more people putting an apostrophe S when a word is a plural? Every day I see signs and menus that read "Sale on jacket's" and "egg's and bacon". I just had a similar rant on my own blog. (I was also taught never to begin a sentence with "and", but I must confess that's my one little indulgence)

  3. I frequently correct the use of apostrophes plural in form but singular in meaning; "this laws' effects" ... I am constantly defending it = annoying. @kjbonnell

  4. How would you pronounce "James' ball"? It would sound like "Jameses ball," wouldn't it? Ergo, add the apostrophe-s. It's that simple.

  5. @Burl, you're right that you would pronounce it Jameses ball, but it would be written James' ball. It's an invisible S, sort of like a silent K in knife and knee.

    @Kallie and @Gid, I'm with you for the aesthetic reasons for not putting that extra S on there.

    Besides, I love starting the occasional sentence with And, and I excuse it with "the language language is evolving." But when someone says it's okay to put the extra S after the apostrophe, I rant and rave about the changes to the language.

  6. The K in knife is silent?!


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