Thursday, May 18, 2017
I taught English for thirty years. Once upon a time, we would teach grammar and punctuation. Not too many kids “got it,” but at least it was taught. The last few years, before I retired, the only teaching of punctuation was random and coincidental. It wasn’t in the curriculum. In some ways, I didn’t miss teaching it. How many times did I hear kids refer to apostrophes as “flying commas”? How often did I teach apostrophes, focusing on the very few rules, and then kids began inserting flying commas everywhere they saw an s? Well, that happened every year. Now I read internet blogs, articles, and comments and wonder if anyone knows the rules for apostrophes. In this blog post, I’m going to go over the few apostrophe rules, emphasizing the pet peeves I have. Uh, yeah, I have a lot of them.
Rule #1. Apostrophes are used to tell the reader that letters are missing. Usually this is done in contractions. Do not becomes don’t and the apostrophe tells us the o in not is missing. I have an irritated side comment here (I think this goes as pet peeves one through four). This rule about contractions? It applies for it’s, you’re, they’re, and who’s. It’s = it is; you’re = you are; they’re = they are; who’s = who is. How is that hard to comprehend…and therefore spell correctly? Those words are contractions. (I’m doing my best to not use all caps and loads of exclamation marks). For the love of grammar and spelling, why do I have to read misspellings of those words every day?
Moving on…You might also use an apostrophe with ’cause (it’s not cuz) or ’til (which is pet peeve number five and stands for the word until—till is a money drawer or a way to work up the ground for planting—and is a misspelling of ’til) or go get ’em (for them) or top o’ the mornin’. The use of the apostrophe in the previous several examples tells the reader that letters are missing.
Rule #2. Do not use an apostrophe to make a plural of a noun (two bird’s is incorrect) or before the final s in a verb (bird chirp’s is incorrect). The only time an apostrophe is used in any kind of plural is in the following three instances: 1) Use the apostrophe to form the plural of an abbreviation that combines upper and lowercase letters or has interior periods: The science department gave ten M.A.’s and four Ph.D.’s at graduation. 2) Use the apostrophe to form the plural of lowercase letters: The word has multiple i’s and u’s. 3) Use the apostrophe to form the plural of words that aren’t nouns but are used as nouns: There are too many and’s in that sentence. Besides these three unusual circumstances, one only needs to use an apostrophe in contractions and to form possessives.
Sidenote. Possessive pronouns never have apostrophes. My, mine, its, his, her, hers, our, ours, their, theirs, your, and yours are examples of possessive pronouns. Pronouns are used in place of nouns, and there are special pronouns that show ownership. They do not have apostrophes. What am I on, pet peeves number six and seven? They’re means “they are.” Their is a possessive pronoun which means “belongs to them.” All other times you use the homophone in writing, use there. It’s not so hard to understand, but I admit, it is slightly harder to understand than to understand why people write are instead of our. Have you placed are order yet? Give me a break. Those words don’t even sound alike.
The above image makes me laugh. Moving on, there are exactly three rules for forming possessives of nouns.
Rule #3. To form the possessive (shows ownership) of a singular noun (singular means there is only one person, place, thing, or idea showing ownership), add an apostrophe and an s at the end of the word. Let me insert this crazy additional word to the rule—always. Yeah, I don’t care what the construction sounds like. There’s a rule for this. For singular words, add an apostrophe and an s to show ownership—always.
It’s time to interrupt to explain where I’m headed here. There are three simple rules for forming possession in English grammar. What I’m saying is Mr. (or Mrs.) I-Made-Up-Grammar-For-The-English-Language did something right for once when inventing apostrophe rules. He (or she) took the idea that punctuation is meant to help the reader understand what he or she is reading and devised three simple rules that do that job perfectly. But then Mr. (or Mrs.) I-Live-In-A-Different-Century-And-I-Think-I’ll-Evolve-The-Language-For-No-Particularly-Good-Reason-Except-To-Throw-In-An-Exception-To-A-Rule-That-Is-Perfectly-Easy-To-Understand-And-Apply came along and has tried to throw a wrench into something that didn’t need wrenching. To paraphrase his (or her) exception, I think this would describe it well: “If the singular word ends with s and forming the singular possessive inconveniences your pronunciation skills, you can decide—or not—to use an apostrophe to form the possessive without adding an s. But there’s not going to be a set description of when you’ll do this. Just do it randomly and ignore what the other two possessive rules mean because it’ll be convenient for your eyes and ears, I guess, sort of.” I think that’s the new rule—which isn’t a rule at all. So instead of following the rule for singular possessives consistently, the new age grammar tweekers suggest we can write Jesus’ disciples and Moses’ staff and diabetes’ victims and Brussels’ capital building. Oh, but go ahead and write bus’s lights and glass’s liquid and Mr. Jones’s confusion and Chris’s lack of assurance of whether he (or she) is doing the right thing. Or don’t. It’s kind of up to you based on how it sounds and looks and makes you feel. Yeah, this is pet peeve whatever number I’m on, but it’s time to go back to the rules.
Rule #4. To form the possessive of a plural noun that ends with s (as most plural nouns do), simply put an apostrophe after the s. This will do two things. It’ll tell the reader that the word is showing ownership and it’ll tell the reader that the word is plural. So while a reader knows that dog’s paws is talking about only one dog, the reader also knows that dogs’ paws is talking about more than one dog’s paws. It’s the beauty of the rule. Glass’s liquid is one glass while glasses’ liquid is more than one glass. Let me move on to rule #5 before I focus back on my interruption from above.
Rule #5. To form the possessive of a plural noun that does not end with s, add an apostrophe and s to show possession. So if women have shoes, you would write women’s shoes. It’s children’s imaginations and teeth’s cavities.
So I stated three rules for possessives. Easy rules. Applicable rules. Functional rules. And they’re consistent, which in English is kind of an odd thing. So let’s go back to rule #3 and my interruption and talk about some weird things. Let’s say I have Mose and Mos Moses in my English class. They have projects. I say Mose’s project (a project belongs to Mose). I say Mos’s project (a project belongs to Mos). I say Moses’s project (a project belongs to one of the Moseses). I say Moseses’ project (a project belongs to both of the Moseses). I say Moses’ project (I don’t know who has a project). Only one of my examples leaves me wondering who did the project—Moses’ project. It could mean more than one Mos did a project. It could mean that more than one Mose did a project. It could mean, according to the rule wrencher, that one of the Moseses did a project. The only thing it can’t mean is that both of the Moseses did a project. I can only assume that the rule wrencher didn’t want to pronounce the possessive word as “Moseses” because it sounds awkward? Though the Moses family would be made up of the Moseses, right? Pronounced “Moseses”? I’m being petty here, I know, but Jesus’ disciples literally means that there was more than one Jesu, and they have disciples. Brussels’ capital building literally means there is more than one Brussel who take “ownership” of the capital building. Diabetes’ victims means there is more than one diabete that has victims.
You see, the rules for punctuating possessives make it very clear whether a word is singular or plural and whether something belongs to that word. If there is a Mr. Moses and a Mrs. Moses, together they are the Moseses. That’s the plural. If together they own something, like a house, it is the Moseses’ house. If we’re only talking about the wallet that belongs to Mr. Moses, it would be Mr. Moses’s wallet. That’s the punctuation rule. Those three Moses examples are pronounced exactly the same way (Moseses, Moseses’, Moses’s) but have decipherably different meanings. And it’s pet peeve number something or other that people are messing with the rule for who knows what inconsistent reason. I suggest that we should celebrate that there is a punctuation mark that has simple, consistent, understandable, meaningful rules, and that any reader or writer can use those rules to interpret or give meaning. So Mr. (or Mrs.) I-Live-In-A-Different-Century-And-I-Think-I’ll-Evolve-The-Language-For-No-Particularly-Good-Reason-Except-To-Throw-In-An-Exception-To-A-Rule-That-Is-Perfectly-Easy-To-Understand-And-Apply, please stop wrenching a rule that doesn’t need to be wrenched. In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Let me give one last odd example. Who cares if Arkansas’s governor is odd to pronounce? Is there anyone who has read this blog who doesn’t know what it means? Did anyone stop, stutter, and whine that Arkansas's is a weird word? I rest my case.
So you’ve now read another installment of The Red Pen. I probably gave you a headache. Certainly I overwhelmed you with a large dose of sarcasm (pet peeve double digit—dose is a word which is not an alternate spelling for does). Some of you are probably poised to quote stylebook notations to me. Some of you are probably worried for my well-being and are prepared to talk me down from a building ledge or advise me to “Don’t worry. Be happy.” The reality is I’m fine. I’ve vented, and writers will go on placing flying commas wherever they please. I’m certain of it.