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.