Apostrophes are prelude to period of punctuation practice
By: By GLENDA CAUDLE, Special Features Editor
Call it a confusion of usage issue.
Call it whatever you like, but please correct it.
I speak, of course, of multiple mistakes concerning the humble apostrophe.
The apostrophe in the English language — as taught to me by the finest of English-language-keeping-traditionalists in the Union City School System of the mid-1960s (notice there is no apostrophe here and none is needed, but more about that later) and as repeated in that highly-entertaining and elevated-standards best-seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” — has specific functions.
These include its first appearance — dating from the 16th century for English speakers — when it was used to indicate “dropped” letters. Indeed, according to “Eats …” author Lynne Truss, the term arises from the Greek and means “turning away,” which, quite naturally and very Britishly, gave rise to a feeling of omission or elision. (Look it up in that handy tome compiled by Noah Webster if you have never encountered the term before. It will stretch your intellectual muscles. I am neither responsible, nor singularly equipped, for the challenge of spoonfeeding your entire education. You must learn to do some things for yourself. And while you are at it, learn the difference between Noah Webster, the lexicographer, and Daniel Webster, the statesman. Teachers, feel free to make use of any of these tidbits in your lesson plans.)
We refer to these as “contractions” and examples include the shortening of “do not” to “don’t” and “will not” to “won’t” (Do not ask about the spelling change; it constitutes an anomaly. Look it up.) and “are not” to “ain’t,” which should not be used to begin with but should, most certainly, then be used correctly when it is — used incorrectly, that is. Oh, never mind.
The apostrophe may also be used to indicate a “dropping” of letters that are not ordinarily thought of as contractions but do occur from time to time in thought, word and deed. Examples — with credit to Truss — include such useful phrases for West Tennesseans as, “We cannot go to Jo’burg.” Ms. Truss explains this as actually implying that a trip to Johannesburg is quite out of the question — particularly if we cannot even spell the city. And even more so if we have no idea where it is. Hint, hint: South Africa.
The use of an apostrophe also applies to missing numerals, such as those used in the phrase, “… the way we did things in the ’60s.” Note the position of the apostrophe. It is taking the place of the missing numerals “19” and should, therefore, be placed where those numbers would appear. It should not be placed before the “s” because no ownership is indicated; indeed, the ’60s might be viewed as the period of time in which spoiled white rich kids and middle class kids of all races, raised with expectations in excess of their willingness to achieve, decided ownership was a sin of the capitalist society and must be repudiated by their moving in with other like-minded individuals and consuming as many mind-altering drugs as possible. The latter may explain why so many of my era now seem incapable of understanding how to use apostrophes, but that is a highly personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board of this paper. (Tell me who those members are again, please.)
A second, but little noticed, use is to indicate time or quantity. Pay heed to these examples: “a week’s worth of lottery tickets” or “a year’s hard luck.” Both with meaning, of course, for those who do not object to paying the “tax on the naive.”
A third use is to show ownership. “That man to whom Glenda Caudle is married” then becomes “Glenda’s husband” and “that car which Terry Caudle pays for” then becomes “Glenda’s car.” You see how advantageous the apostrophe can become in some instances.
Should you be acquainted with many folk of Irish heritage, you will find their forebearers have appropriated the apostrophe for use in their surnames to replace the word “of”. Examples include “O’Malley,” “O’Conner” and “O’Brien.”
Pray, do not consider inserting a giggling reference to “O’Say” here, as in “O’Say, can you see?” because it will mess up a perfectly good joke and confuse some people no end. That is what happens when cultures are stirred together too briskly in this vast melting pot of a nation.
Plurals of letters and plurals of words are also assisted by the apostrophe. I am quite sure you have used it without thought in expressing concern over the inadequate need for “q’s” in basic English or the overabundance of “do’s” and “don’t’s” in some etiquette books. But then, I have misjudged my audience on more than one occasion. And may do so again.
Would that the rules for usage were all this simple and straightforward.
But from now on, it becomes a trifle more difficult.
Consider the complications inherent when the three little letters “i,” “t” and “s” are strung together. If your mission is to show ownership, you must now absorb this seeming contradiction that an apostrophe is not necessary. A group planning an amusing jaunt to Arkansas would then be utterly consumed with drawing up “its” very own itinerary.
However, if your desire is to express consternation — with as few words as possible (forget not, this is where contractions come in) — at such an undertaking, you might make use of the apostrophe, as in “It’s a waste of good time and money.” This is not, I hasten to add, a personal opinion, but simply the first example that sprang to mind. And never mind that I spent the longest decade of my life there one year.
Use this simple test to determine whether or not the apostrophe is required: Substitute the words “it is” in your sentence for those three little letters. If it stands the test, stick the apostrophe in; if not, save it for another time.
A second complication is related to the use of possessives for plural nouns. I take it for granted that you are aware the apostrophe precedes the ownership “s” when the noun is singular and does not itself end in “s” — “the baby’s bottle.” I assume, too, that you know it to be proper to use the apostrophe either preceding the possessive “s” or standing alone in singular words that end in s — “the glass’s rim” or “the glass’ rim.” Although you would be surprised how many people can mess this up.
Plural possessives are a bit more of a challenge, but are do-able, if you pay attention and use common sense.
Take note: If the people or things that possess do not end in an “s” (ex. children, men), place an apostrophe prior to positioning the ownership “s.” And, thus, we have “children’s work” and “men’s toys.” If, however, the plural has been formed by adding an “s” or “es” (ex. babies, glasses), attach the apostrophe at the end of the word and let it dangle alone, creating phrases such as “babies’ bottles” and “glasses’ rims.”
And now a word about possessive pronouns. Remind yourself that they are already possessive. They do not require the apostrophe to help them carry the load, just because they may end in an “s.” Repeat: There is no need for an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun “ours” or “yours” or “hers.” Any insistence on using one may have the same effect as a double negative and render the whole idea the complete opposite of your original intent. I direct your attention to an example previously used; to wit, “Glenda’s car.” Should the need arise to speak of the car as “hers,” be content to let it go at that, lest you disturb the grammatical gods who might then render it “Terry’s car” in recompense for the inaccurate use of the apostrophe as in “her’s.” This would not actually occur, of course, and is all used as an example in good fun that will, hopefully, help you avoid this blunder in the future. But, just to be on the safe side, MAKE SURE YOU NEVER USE THIS SPECIFIC EXAMPLE.
Finally, I implore you, repeat this injunction daily: Just because this word contains an “s,” there is no automatic call for an apostrophe. Tuck this handy column up on the mirror where you shave your mustache or pluck your errant chin hairs — or both — and review it each morning.
Should this prove entirely too difficult, simply pledge to avoid using words that require you to make decisions about such usage. I just did. And it did not hurt a bit.
Glenda Caudle may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 1.11.08