For want a comma, the syntax was lost;
For want of a syntax, the idea was lost;
For want of an idea, the treaty was lost;
For want of a treaty, the peace was lost;
For want of a peace, the empire was lost;
and all for the want of a comma.

Gentle readers, I have been mighty fired up lately about the abuse of punctuation. It all started when I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and now it has ascended to dizzying heights. We all know I have a fragile temper at best, but I didn’t realize how flamingly angry punctuation abuse can make me. I got hot in the face while arguing for the Oxford comma* the other day, for Pete’s sake!

I’ve spent the last week or so brooding over an apostrophe which made me so violently angry that I’m afraid I broke a candy bar in half. That apostrophe had no good reason to be there, and while I don’t want to name names, that person should have known better. The rules of apostrophe use are simple and finite, and they hardly require extensive education.

I can understand why people get confused when confronted with the lovely semicolon, or the elegant em-dash. But apostrophes? For Pete’s sake, how hard is it to use a damn apostrophe right? Not only is it an abomination, it makes you look like a complete idiot. And the poor apostrophe looks so sheepish and awkward, as though it is personally apologizing for your heinous action. Apparently this doesn’t bother other people, because they swan along despite flagrant violations of apostrophe protocol, buying things like “apple’s” at the farmers’ market.

In English, there are two major reasons to use an apostrophe:

  • 1. You omitted something. See the title of this website for an example; it includes a contraction and an outright omission. See more examples below.
    • That’s her website. That is her website.
    • He’s on the fo’c’s’t’le. He is on the forecastle.
  • 2. You want to indicate a possessive. See below.
    • The cat’s whiskers are grey. The whiskers belonging to the cat are grey.
    • The apple’s color is quite bright. The color of the apple is quite bright.

The exception to the above is “its,” which is used possessively without an apostrophe. Hence the sentence: “The gun misfired; it’s fairly certain that its barrel was clogged.” Please also note that when you are turning a plural with an “S” into a possessive, the apostrophe is placed after the “S,” indicating that it is a plural possessive. Hence “farmers’ market,” as in a market belonging to farmers, rather than a “farmer’s market,” as in a market run by a single farmer. You will also note that the pluralizing “S” is dropped, because “farmers’s market” would look stupid. If you are turning a singular word which ends with “S” (and sometimes “Z”, depending on personal taste) into a possessive, it is acceptable to drop the possessive “S” also, creating something like: “Mary Jones’ house.”

If you are making a plural like “women” or “children” into a possessive, the possessive “s” is used: “the women’s home.” Apostrophes are also used in written dialect, indicating nonstandard English, as in: “‘e ain’t ‘ere.” As pointed out in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, apostrophes are also used to indicate the passage of time, as in “two weeks’ notice” or “in four months’ time.”

I assume that all of you, gentle readers, are too wise to misuse apostrophes, along with the other delightful markings which help make English plain and pleasant to use. But I’m going to ask you to take a moment to evaluate your apostrophe use anyway…and if you see flagrant abuse of this poor oppressed piece of punctuation, speak out. Liberate it. You have a responsibility to yourself, humanity, and the English language, which is having a tough enough time as it is.

*You don’t know what an Oxford comma is? For Pete’s sake! I was raised on the Oxford comma, and in the unlikely and horrific event that I have children, they too shall use the Oxford comma.

2 Replies to “Punctuate”

  1. sigh. i already wrote this epic post, so this will be the bullet points of the original indignant post. to sum up:

    1) i’m not a prescriptivist, so i take issue with grammatical prescriptivism anyway; note the writing in all lowercase. i’m not just trying to be hip. i think it looks better this way. i like signs in all lower-case. ‘proper’ does not always mean ‘right’. that said, her book is plenty funny. my issue has more to do with the righteous hypocrisy of people like truss, who aren’t particularly smart about grammar themselves, but feel obliged to yell at the world about it. plenty of ink has been spilled about her seeming ignorance of punctuation (or perhaps lack of a copy-editor?), beginning with a failure to properly use a comma before a non-restrictive clause (first instance: the dedication) and going on from there. so i won’t rant on it, i’ll just comment that the righteously indignant often have no real cause to be either.

    2) a cursory examination of typographical history will actually show quite clearly that the original intent of the apostroph’ (and come now, if we’re going to be sticklers, let’s use the three-syllable pronunciation the OED insists upon!) was to replace the letter e in a word. if we’re true sticklers, we’d insist that an apostrophe is a rhetorical trope, and an apostrop’ is a typographical mark. what i’m trying to point out here is that the purpose of the apostrophe (yes, i’m using that spelling, i was just demonstrating the absurdity…) was to replace letters — most especially the letter ‘e’ as used in pluralization! if you look at early uses, you see fox’s as a substitute for foxes. for those keeping score at home, that’s not a possessive. that is functionally the same as get your tomato’s here. and it wasn’t just for words that took an e when pluralized. in fact, it soon became more common to use it for plurals that didn’t have es.

    3) at some point, the usage changed more to what we see today. but that’s precisely the point. it changed. and while there may have been sticklers bemoaning the fact that it was changing for the worse, it did anyway, and we now have the glorious language we have today. and if you, like me, don’t subscribe to the view that our language has reached its pinnacle, further change is a good thing.

    4) to put it another way: not so long ago (let’s whisk back in time two-hundred years), all nouns in English were capitalized. this was a great device for letting people know whether an ambiguous word (let’s say fly) was a noun or a verb. it also added some punch to reading pages. and yes, there are good typographical reasons as well that we won’t get into now. but eventually, that started to change. it shifted, as language always does. and yes, there were people who got into an uproar into the heathens who would dare write nouns without the majascule. and maybe they got incensed about the fact that greengrocers had signs that said: Get your fresh tomatoes and carrots at our stand today. The best vegetables you’ll ever eat! rather than: Get your fresh Tomatoes and Carrots at our Stand today. The best Vegetables you’ll ever eat! They probably didn’t write a somewhat humorous book with a punny title, but they still got pissed off. But they were being silly. Because that’s how language works. And guess what? We all managed to survive without our nouns all capitalized (oh wow, you can tell whether something is a noun or a verb based on context in 99.99% of sentences? keen!)

    5) no thinking person is genuinely confused by the greengrocers’ apostrophe. no one is realistically wonder what exactly it is that carrots posses. no one thinks that potatoes own some strange noun called a “half price”. to insinuate otherwise is preposterous. it is only mavens and prescriptivists who come up with such comical thought experiments to support their own frustrating. the dislike is based on either a complete and total misunderstanding of how language (especially english) works, a desire to just rant and rave about something, or a cultural elitism. unfortunately, i think the first and second are only part of the reason, and i think the third plays a rather large role. luckily, it is the culturally ‘illiterate’ who form the basis for what language will become, so ultimately they have the last laugh.

    6) i’ll stop this, with only two final points. one is that an added use of the apostrophe that is being used more and more frequently, even among some fairly respected style guides, is to pluralize minute words. for example, in some newspapers you will come across constructions such as: The paper was covered in x’s. That is, strictly speaking, no different than a greengrocer’s apostrophe, but is considered prettier than the alternate xes and so is accepted (and in some cases preferred).

    7) the second is that one of the greengrocer uses i see cited a lot (including in ES&L), which i mentioned earlier, is tomato’s. i just want to point out once again that not only was this strictly proper when the apostrophe came into widespread usage, but in fact is still proper today by the rules of omission. so if people could stop giving greengrocers a hard time about that one, i’d appreciate it.

    8) sorry for the rant. it’s either years of linguistics or reading too much modernism, but one way or the other i get frustrated with all the hatin’ on people doing what they want to with their own language (that said, i did laugh at times during truss’s book, so i’m not saying it was awful). and yeah, i used a terminal s there. continental style, represent! she ain’t no biblical character in my book. shiiiiiit.

  2. Well, I think that if you had seen this apostrophe, you would have recoiled in horror as well. And I should add that Truss is far from being an idol for me, not least because we disagree on the fundamental issue of the Oxford comma.

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