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Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The apostrophe is the modern day Shibboleth

One of the disadvantages of

  1. dealing with copy editors and
  2. reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves

is that I now have a much higher sensitivity and much lower tolerance for grammatical errors. It’s like after you quit smoking, and you realize that all of your friends smell bad. Or when you’re on a diet, and you realize that everyone around you is fat. Or (to end on a positive note) when you’re newly engaged, and suddenly the world around you is a sea of diamond rings.

The world around me is a sea of grammatical errors.

At the YMCA, this sign sits above the water fountain:



On the way home from work, there is a handmade sign on the side of the road:

Window Tinting

Cars $150

SUV’s $180

At our day care center, one room has this sign in the window:


The Apostrophe Protection Society is nice, but it’s so… British. What it needs is a militant wing. Like those culture jammers that go around defacing iPod posters. OK, “culture jammers” probably overstates it.

Hey look, culture jamming has its own DMOZ category. And its own Wikipedia page. As does the apostrophe.

The apostrophe is the modern day Shibboleth.

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  1. Today I took a day of work to join my son in the ball pond at the local shopping centre. It was hell in there, but we had fun. Anyway. A sign particularly warned against dropping litter, as it was a SERIOUS HAZZARD.

    Comment by Robert — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:18 pm

  2. Yeah, the ‘make it plural by adding an apostrophe s’ is pretty annoying and incredibly common. But, this being something that I agonize over frequently, the question of whether to put an apostrophe before the s after an acronym isn’t as clear cut as the rest of the examples. If it’s a lowercase acronym, the apostrophe is explicitly acceptable. The uppercase acronym technically isn’t, but there’s at least an argument for why it should be there).

    Comment by Stephen Bronstein — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:18 pm

  3. This calls for the classic:
    Bob’s Quick Guide to the Apostrophe.

    Comment by ardenstone — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:21 pm

  4. So… what you’re saying is we should slay people who don’t use apostrophes correctly? Sounds good.

    Comment by Chris Clark — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:32 pm

  5. “It’s like after you quit smoking, and you realize that all of your friends smell badly.”

    Smell BAD, actually. Given the topic of the post, this is one of the few scenarios in which I would be so pedantic.

    Comment by Andrew Dupont — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:43 pm

  6. Just for fun, I’m going to be a bastard and put on my grammar Nazi hat.

    “It’s like after you quit smoking, and you realize that all of your friends smell badly.” Technically, this sentence would mean that your olfactory sense is impaired. “Badly” is an adverb, and adverbs can only modify verbs — in this case, the verb “smell.”

    The correct way of saying it would’ve been “…you realize that all of your friends smell bad.” In this case, “bad” is an adjective modifying the noun “I” on the far side of the intransitive verb “smell.”

    Sorry, I can’t help it. I took an accelerated grammar course in high school, and ever since then I’ve had a little fascist grammarian embedded in my subconscious. I think I need deprogramming…

    Comment by Adam M. — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 4:48 pm

  7. > Smell BAD, actually.

    /me hangs head in shame

    I really need to port my revision history plugin to WordPress.

    Comment by Mark — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 5:02 pm

  8. Some of us just aren’t wired up for decent spelling or written grammer. I would love to be able to get it right, but my eyes just don’t pick up th mistakes.

    Comment by Adrian — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 5:07 pm

  9. That’s what copy editors are for!

    Comment by Mark — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 5:13 pm

  10. In a similar vein, I distinctly remember having to correct my teachers’ spelling three times when I was between the ages of ten and eleven. The worst bit? It was always during spelling tests.

    Comment by Jim — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 5:27 pm

  11. “Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed:”

    Should be more like:

    “Line and paragraph breaks are inserted automatically, the e-mail address is never displayed, and the only HTML allowed is:”

    Comment by Anonymous — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 5:39 pm

  12. I feel your pain; I tend to be very persnickety about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage, but this way lies madness. Realize that your copy editor’s job is to enforce correct style, which is a set of mostly arbitrary writing conventions, probably codified in something like the MLA or Chicago style guide. Style rules exist to encourage consistency and (arguably) clarity; I would add that they’re also needed to meet your audience’s expectations of what an “intelligent” writer should sound like. I’d wager that any suggestions from your copy editor actually involving questions of correct English grammar constitute a small subset of the total corrections you’ve received. This is fine because you’re writing a book for a specific audience (and here I respectfully disagree with Geoffrey Pullum* of Language Log), but real people break these rules all the time, and the English language somehow survives. Maybe it has something to do with that ultraliberal language parser in every one of us.

    I’d also take “Eats Shoots & Leaves” with a grain of salt if I were you. From what I understand, the author doesn’t speak quite the same language as you.

    * - Geoffrey Pullum, author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language”

    Comment by jacob — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 6:28 pm

  13. Gotta love the Anguish languish.

    Comment by Geof — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 6:34 pm

  14. “Dude, I live in New York City. I’ve got news for you… I don’t want my sense of smell back.” — Bill Hicks

    Comment by Danil Suits — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 6:39 pm

  15. I love that book (Eats, Shoots & Leaves). More people should read it. Spread the gospel of the comma!!

    Comment by Hans — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 7:17 pm

  16. I dispute the Apostrophe Protection Society’s usage rules. Their rules on posessives state that I would use “Charles’s computer” instead of the proper usage of “Charles’ computer.” It also fails to mention classic Britishisms like Thos’ and Chas’ as abbreviations. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Comment by Charles — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 8:37 pm

  17. “Smell badly” and “Smell bad” are BOTH technically correct. As a on again off again (mostly on, curse them!) smoker, I know my sense of smell suffers when I’m “on”.

    – hoping-apostrophes-in-conjunctions-are-still-legitamitely,

    Comment by Grimmtooth — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 9:20 pm

  18. Sorry Charles, but you’re wrong. The only time that ‘apostrophe s’ is replaced by merely an apostrophe in the possessive is after a *plural* that ends in s.

    The business’s pen was shoddy, but the businesses’ forum was quite well-organised.

    Comment by Lach — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 10:10 pm

  19. Not strictly a grammatical peeve, but I’m about ready to go an a crusade against abusers of “Begging The Question.”

    Comment by Paulo — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 10:19 pm

  20. Paulo, that is a welcome expansion of the discussion. Bring on the crusades!

    Comment by Mark — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 10:32 pm

  21. Charles and Lach, with all due respect, you’re both wrong for assuming that only one rule or the other must be correct. It only takes a few minutes of Googling to find style guides that will support either side of the ‘apostrophe s’ question. To what authority would you possibly appeal to resolve this?

    Do you also have a strong opinion about curly brace placement when programming in C or Perl? Do you believe that your position is correct and true in some fundamental, nonarbitrary way?

    Comment by jacob — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 10:52 pm

  22. Jacob, your analogy to programming language is irrelevant, since those are completely synthetic linguistic structures, invented not for human but for computer interpretation. The syntax is exactly as the inventors specified, so I follow Kernigan & Ritchie in C. Perl is incomprehensible so it doesn’t matter.
    In any case, I appeal to two authorities in this matter. One: ME. It’s my name so I get to determine how Charles’ posessives are punctuated. Two: professional editors like Jim Capozzola, who points out the “Moses and Jesus Rule” as a refinement of the rule cited in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”

    Comment by Charles — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 11:27 pm

  23. Charles, I’ve always taken curly brace placement to be a matter of preference, in which the consistency of application was most important. I’m not sure if you are dodging the point of my analogy or if you truly don’t see this. Anyhow, can you explain how “ME” and “professional editors like Jim Capozzola” are more authoritative on English usage than others? From my perspective, I fail to see how your choices are anything besides arbitrary. My surname ends in ’s,’ so I can certainly appreciate the fact that you have a personal stake in the matter. (But can you tell me which end of an egg it is best to crack?)

    Comment by jacob — Wednesday, June 2, 2004 @ 11:48 pm

  24. Why do people get worked up about this? Bad writing is more tiring to read, so it’s less likely to be read, but it’s also less likely to say anything interesting. (That’s not a perfect correlation, but a good one in my experience.) So bad writing helps prevent us from wasting time reading uninteresting stuff. What’s wrong with that?

    As for “begging the question”, crusading against a more logical definition of the phrase just because it’s newer might be fun, but I’d rather just use a more obvious expression of the original idea. Like “assuming the question”, perhaps.

    Comment by mpt — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 1:02 am

  25. When did some of the rules for apostrophes change? Was it sometime in the nineties? Somebody mentioned acronyms earlier. How about dates? 1900’s versus 1900s. The current rule says no apostrophe. Why the change?

    Can we discuss commas and semicolons now?

    Comment by Mark W. — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 1:18 am

  26. “Bad writing is more tiring to read, so it’s less likely to be read, but it’s also less likely to say anything interesting.” This begs, er, *raises* the question of what exactly bad writing is. It can’t be writing that is less likely to be read, though, because that fails to explain the New York Times Bestseller List!

    Comment by jacob — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 1:34 am

  27. “The Apostrophe Protection Society is nice, but it’s so… British. What it needs is a militant wing.”

    In David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest, the protagonist’s mother is the founder of MGM, or the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, a group whose members are responsible for such acts as firebombing supermarkets that feature “10 items or less” signs in express checkout lanes.

    Comment by Ned — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 2:54 am

  28. I’m a copy editor for a college paper. That doesn’t mean I’m a trusted authority on the English language, but I can report on what my paper does with respect to this topic. We go by AP style, meaning that the only time we use apostrophe s to form a plural is when the noun is a single letter used as a letter, as in “Joe likes getting A’s.” For other situations, such as “cats”, “SUVs”, or “1990s”, no apostrophe is used.

    Of course, AP style isn’t the only set of guidelines that people use, and outside of the editing office, I don’t always use it myself. For instance, I put in a comma before “or” in the previous paragraph, which is anathema to my newspaper.

    Comment by Ben — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 3:50 am

  29. There is a sign on the paper towel dispenser at work that reads:

    For ‘drying hands only’ please do not ‘flush down the toilet.’

    Comment by Loz — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 4:01 am

  30. You ought to join the Pedant’s Society, or the Pedants’ Society. There used to just be one, but they had a big split.

    Comment by Paul Morriss — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 4:01 am

  31. It’s even worse in Germany, trust me. Apostrophes EVERYWHERE. “CD’s, DVD’s, party’s” (I’m not kidding).

    Comment by Carlo Zottmann — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 4:45 am

  32. In England the misplaced apostrophe on a plural noun is often known as the grocer’s apostrophe, because they are so often seen on boards outside a greengrocer’s shop. My favourite example, however, was seen outside a baker’s shop: “Try our sandwiches, rolls and gateaux’s!” It’s gone now, alas.

    Comment by Chris Booth — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 6:22 am

  33. Ah, the grocer’s apostrophe… Seen in a café recently - “Jacket Potatoe’s”, followed by “Jacket Potatoe with Cheese” etc., all down the menu. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to finish my drink without exploding in a grammatical rage.

    Comment by Mark Piper — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 6:57 am

  34. Every day I walk home past a bunch of signs that all say ‘Bury St. Edwards’ (for those that don’t know St. is short for saint and thus the abbreviation ends with the same letter the real word does therefore meaning it should not have a final full-stop/period, it should read ‘St’. For other examples of abuse see Mr. Dr. Ave. and countless others). One day I’m going to get some white labels and stick them all over every mistaken full stop.

    Comment by Sparticus — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 7:46 am

  35. Oh and you should all really read Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Possibly the best dictionary in the world. Ever.

    Comment by Sparticus — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 7:48 am

  36. Perhaps Bob the Angry Flower on the apostrophe, preceded by this rant on plurals and a note on “worlds”, is a little closer to the militance you were hoping for?

    Comment by Dan Lyke — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 2:20 pm

  37. Along these lines, apostrophes and quotation marks used to provide emphasis drives me crazy.

    Big “Sale” Today!
    “Service” with a “Smile”.

    and other infuriating things you can find if you just look around a little bit.

    I think Angry Flower wondering whether or not we even made it through the 4th grade is pretty apt. Did we even make i through 4th grade?

    Comment by Sam — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 4:30 pm

  38. The book has a couple of contentious things in it anyway, but I hadn’t noticed that Comment by rfb — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 5:54 pm

  39. (at/on page http://www2b.abc.net.au/science/k2/stn/archives/archive1/newposts/3/topic3254.shtm),

    referring to govt health warnings on cigs (in Oz),
    A bloke said:
    Made me think of the warning that says “Smoking when pregnant may harm your baby”. I read that and think “woohoo, stoked I’m not pregnant then”.

    Actually, it’s (=it has in Oz speak, regardless of purists etc…) always made me think that
    1. a baby shouldn’t GET pregnant
    2. a baby shouldn’t smoke anyway


    Any other comments on same from grammarians, purists or humans ?

    Comment by Wayne T — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 9:03 pm

  40. Kudos, Mark! Back in 2001 or so I became so exasperated with the gratuitous apostrophe in (putative plural)”DTD’s” that I wrote what I hope would be mildly amusing to those willing to grok a simple concept, and mild chastisement to those too lazy: “Infrequently Asked Questions Concerning the Proper Spelling of ‘DTD’ in its Plural Form. Anyone willing to learn from a few examples can get the idea in under one minute. “Shibboleth” is a nice label except that in ancient times, the /s/ vs. /sh/ difference represented a real dialect difference in the two regions — most likely a differential resolution from proto-semitic /th/. As such, it fails to capture the notion that using apostrophe as a plural marker in English is strongly marked for illiteracy. PS An official version of my tutorial-rant was published in Markup Languages: Theory and Practice

    Comment by Robin Cover — Thursday, June 3, 2004 @ 10:42 pm

  41. I too am driven to distraction by the flagrant misuse of quotation marks.

    I flew out to Utah a couple of years back to visit my parents, and for some reason there were extra quotation marks everywhere. Toward the end of the trip, I saw a freeway advertisement that read more or less like this:

    Congratulations Jane Doe!
    Miss Utah “2001″

    Hmmph. Hardly a proper year at all, that so-called “2001″.

    Goodness knows I make the odd grammatical error myself, and I tend to overlook all but the most egregious when reading blogs, email, technical manuals, and any other mostly informal writing. I wouldn’t want anybody to go over this comment with a fine-toothed comb. But If I were spending thousands of dollars on a twenty-foot sign, I should think I’d double check the damned copy, at least.

    Comment by Jack — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 2:21 am

  42. Apostrophes seem to do three main things (apart from doubling as marks of quotation):

    (1) elision of parts of words, as in don’t, can’t;

    (2) possessives, as in Bill’s (which sort of originated as an elision of the e in old-english’s -es suffix);

    (3) plurals of non-words, like 1990’s, DTD’s, c.v.’s, p’s and q’s.

    The third case is different from the first two; the apostrophe is being used as a protective wrapper to separate a non-word from the -s suffix. It is neither correct not incorrect usage, but a matter of writing style. It was a style popular in Victorian printing, which was very fussy and invented typographical rules for the sheer pedantic pleasure of it. Nowadays we think of apostrophe as being a mark of elision only, so the style is less fashionable. I personally prefer 1990s, DTDs, ps and qs (and in the last case I would italicize the letters p and q). The plural of abbreviations ending in a stop is a odd, but Hart’s Rules offers D.Phil.s as an example.

    Different printing houses will have different house styles. When publishing a book, traditionally you would be expected to follow the house style.

    Comment by Damian Cugley — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 6:03 am

  43. Language is fluid. There is a reason why we don’t talk or write the way we did hundreds of years ago—and that’s because people broke the grammatical rules of the time because it was deemed to be easier to do so. Grammatical errors that are popular and, more importantly, unconfusing often become accepted grammar at some point.

    The only time that I get upset by grammatical errors is when they either add too much “fluff” to a “sentence”, or when they make the meaning of a sentence unclear (e.g. re-signs vs resigns).

    Most other grammatical mistakes, such as the common mistakes with apostrophes, make little difference to the legibility of the sentence in question and it usually only the pedants that pick up on it.

    However, that isn’t to say that people aren’t entitled to a little pedantry in their lives if they so wish. :)

    Comment by Mike — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 8:22 am

  44. I believe that SUV’s is correct, at least arguably. It’s governed by the same rule that makes 80’s and 90’s correct — numerals and acronyms receive an apostrophe, largely because a string of capital letters and tall numerals followed by a lowercase s looks silly, and, even in all caps text, the S could easily be mistaken for a part of the acronym.

    Comment by Doug — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 4:50 pm

  45. What is the correct pronunciation for the word ‘quixotic?’

    Comment by jacob — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 6:34 pm

  46. Does it bug the hell out of anyone else that WordPress refuses to “curlify” a closing quotation mark that precedes a question mark? This is perfectly valid usage if the quoted material is not itself a question. For example:

    Have you read the assigned short story, “The Lottery”?

    WP also substitutes a double prime for a closing quotation mark that follows a digit:

    “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will no doubt be a very controversial movie.

    The perfectionist in me bristles a little bit every time I see these things on my own weblog. At least I have the comfort of knowing that, as open source software, it’s likely to be fixed soon.

    Comment by Adam M. — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 8:23 pm

  47. I think there are other cases where a plural can be shown by using an apostrophe-S. Unfortunately, no concrete examples occur to me now. :-)

    However, for instance, “schemas” and “schema’s” will do for illustration. I think at this point “schemas” is correct, but when “schema” was a less familiar word, the apostrophe probably ought to have been used. The purpose of the apostrophe here is not to indicate the possessive, but rather to clarify the pronunciation, thus making it clear that it’s a plural, and not just a word ending in S. “Schemas” could potentially be pronounced SKEE-mahSS or SKEE-mahZ. The latter is the pronunciation for the plural, and the former would be the pronunciation were “schemas” just a singular word that happens to end in S (which it isn’t, of course, but for a less familar word many readers wouldn’t know that).

    Similarly, words that end in other vowels would cause similar problems: would a word ending in “-us” be an S sound or a voiced Z sound? Familiar words we know, but new coinages and borrowings we don’t.

    For words that have been around a long time, the spelling has been adjusted to take care of this problem: for instance, “potato” versus “potatoes.” But newer words create a little confusion: depending on context, “logos” could go either way, S or Z, and the spelling “logoes” has not come into use (for the corporate identity sense of the word).

    A case of this not involving plurals is the use of the apostrophe for the past tense. For instance, “I spec’d out the design” is not uncommon. You might say “specked” or “specced,” I suppose, but “spec’d” is the easiest way to prevent the reader from thinking “What does ’spessed” mean?” when you spell it “speced.”

    The concept of the “correct way” as a moving target is well accepted; witness the Chicago Manual on whether to hyphenate, treat as two words, or spell as a single word. They basically say that things move so fast when new compounds are formed, that even dictionaries cannot be trusted.

    The concept of punctuation as a pronunciation guide is also well accepted. Strunk’s Rule No. 1 is basically an acknowledgment of the fact that (in many English dialects) “Charles’s book” is pronounced CHARZ-iz-book. Here the apostrophe is indicating elision of a vowel.

    Comment by jbard — Friday, June 4, 2004 @ 9:31 pm

  48. Here in Finland we have somewhat similar issue with combound words. For example, “combound word” is in Finnish “yhdyssana”, where “combound” is “yhdys” and “word” is “sana”. (Finnish is quite the opposite versus English in this regard, which is why, I guess, I have so much trouble spelling combound words in English.) Unfortunately, more and more people spell them like this: “yhdys sana”.

    Although I hate to see people misspell these words, I think we would be better off by just spelling these words separate (eg. “yhdys sana”) and concentrate on the more important problems in our lives.

    Comment by Jarno Virtanen — Saturday, June 5, 2004 @ 6:35 am

  49. My spelling sucks, I would not be able to live without Mr Spell Check. When I write SMS’s on my phone the dictonary never recognises my words, sucks man.

    Comment by Gambit — Saturday, June 5, 2004 @ 5:57 pm

  50. schemas/schema’s may not have been the best example as the true pedants will tell you that the plural of schema is schemata. ;-)

    Comment by Steve Pugh — Sunday, June 6, 2004 @ 8:47 am

  51. Feast on this sentence from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine:

    “No calculation of unit price, no can’ts or shoulds or ought-not-to’s, no keen eye to the comparative ounce.”

    Comment by jacob — Sunday, June 6, 2004 @ 4:41 pm

  52. Other grammatical things that people should be on the look out for:
    Using ‘that’ when ‘which’ is appropriate and visa-versa.
    Using ‘whom’ just because it sounds posh.
    Using the word BBQ instead of Barbecue in any piece of formal writing.
    Incorrectly calling something a acronym when really it’s an abbreviation (and that’s something that all us html coders can appreciate).

    Comment by Sparticus — Monday, June 7, 2004 @ 6:16 am

  53. In XHTML 2.0, there are no acronyms — everything is an abbr.

    Other things to be on the lookout for: people who say “be on the look out for” when they mean “be on the lookout for”. People who say “html” when they mean “HTML”. And people who spend too much time discussing this sort of thing.

    Comment by Mark — Monday, June 7, 2004 @ 8:07 am

  54. what really winds me up ’bout grammer is the way you americans cant speak propper. =)

    You all should read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, you’d appreciate it. ;)


    Comment by Jim — Monday, June 7, 2004 @ 8:17 am

  55. Well, I’m not sure if I would call those errors grammatical since all of the examples are good, unambiguous sentences and phrases with the possible exception of “REMEMBER NO SPITTING” (with its alternative interpretation). Orthographic error might be a better term.

    Comment by a-giâu — Tuesday, June 8, 2004 @ 2:02 pm

  56. Other things to be on the lookout for: people who say “be on the look out for” when they mean “be on the lookout for”. People who say “html” when they mean “HTML”. And people who spend too much time discussing this sort of thing.

    Well, that showed me.

    Comment by Sparticus — Wednesday, June 9, 2004 @ 4:09 am

  57. By the way Mark, in your correction of Sparticus, you left your periods outside the quotes. You might want to refresh your recollection of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”

    Comment by jbard — Wednesday, June 9, 2004 @ 8:58 am