{Wed 10 December 2008}   Apostrophising the apostrophe

Apostrophising the apostrophe

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

Tia Azulay

No, I’m not starting a new religion, or being lewd, but I confess that this is a shameless grammar and punctuation plug, as well as a plea for the improvement of our reading environment. While I’m sure that none of us at Master’s leveli would ever dream of intentionally inflicting on others a piece of work for reading or review without running it through MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker first, the simple truth is that this less-than-beloved software doesn’t pick up everything, so we simply have to learn a few rules if we want to be writers.

Of all the errors that grate on my reading nerves, the misuse of the apostrophe definitely tops the list.

Good and bad (use of) apostrophes

I love apostrophes, because they’re really useful. However, they’re pointless when used in the wrong places. In fact, they’re worse than pointless then, because they actually interfere with smooth reading. A bad apostrophe is not neutral, it’s negative! In the worst cases, it alters the meaning, but even when the context tells me that it just can’t mean that, just one bad apostrophe in a paragraph, even in an entire page, makes whatever I’m reading seem unprofessional. I immediately find it difficult to focus on the content, even if I’m really interested in it.

I’m very lucky in that I was well-drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation at my school (we were always a backward lot out there in the colonies, so we didn’t “benefit” from educational fads like the “grammar inhibits creativity” one that has betrayed recent generations of UK children), but I still come up against the occasional grammatical situation where I have to think twice about the apostrophe.

Apostrophe resources

So here are two sites that I’ve found helpful:

A. The Apostrophe Protection Society: http://www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk/

This site has a really poncey name, but it’s a useful quick reference because the Home page contains the bare essentials in big text. It gives the traditional explanations of correct usage for missing letters and for possessives (remembering to except the exceptions). The easiest-to-remember advice from this page is:

“Apostrophes are NEVER ever used to denote plurals”,

so if you mean “more than one”, don’t even be tempted! Just remembering this rule will halve your apostrophe problems immediately.

B. The Dreaded Apostrophe:  http://www.dreaded-apostrophe.com/

I like this site much more, because:

  1. It reduces all the rules to one: “Use an apostrophe when letters are missing”.The writer explains that the apostrophe ALWAYS signifies one or more missing letters, even in possessives, because the old form of the possessive used to have an ‘es’ ending. Pronunciation has changed and the ‘es’ form has contracted, so that it is now represented as “‘s “.
  2. There are good examples and a great Q & A page giving answers to difficult apostrophe questions. Surprisingly, it makes quite interesting reading!

If all else fails, pray!

On the other hand, if you don’t have time to look it up, you can always recite my daily prayer,

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

and maybe the muse will give you a clue!

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