February 25, 2020

From the proofreader’s desk: Apostrophic catastrophes


I love my job as a proofreader. While in reality grammar is just a portion of a proofreader’s job, it is nevertheless one of the most satisfying. Each day I right wrongs in my little corner of the world, catching commas and releasing them back into their natural habitat, saving hyphens from being suffocated between the wrong words and pulling down apostrophes when they hang meaninglessly in the air.

But in the process, there are moments when I have to shake my head. You see, from reading the finished articles, you can form no idea of what I have to put up with every day — not even mentioning any additional office shenanigans. My job is, in our reporters’ words, “to make them look less stupid,” and some days, well, that takes quite a bit of work. (I tease ... maybe.)

Some of the darkest moments concern the apostrophe, and it’s not just our reporters who seem hopelessly lost; misuse and ignorance is rampant. In the words of British journalist and author Lynne Truss, the confusion of “its” and “it’s” “rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.” It is “an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler.”

It’s really not that hard. See, just look at that last sentence. Read it as, “It is really not that hard.” Did it still make sense? Then the apostrophe is in its proper place. Now look at that last sentence. “Then the apostrophe is in it is proper place.” Does that make sense? Then don’t make “its” what it’s not.

Another horror encountered is the use of an apostrophe to try to pluralize something. “We cover three county’s” makes my eyes bleed, as does any attempt at citing multiple “car’s” or “resident’s.” Simply put, _apostrophes do not pluralize._

And ... yes, here comes the exception. “Cross your T’s and dot your I’s.” So, use an apostrophe to pluralize letters, because otherwise I’s might look like a capitalized “is,” among other potential mix-ups. That is it. So unless you’re constantly talking about the alphabet, you don’t have to worry too much about it. Yes, apostrophes were once used for 1800’s and CD’s. Thankfully this trend has tapered off and 1800s and CDs are considered perfectly fine and readable.

So, repeat it with me a few more times, “Apostrophes do not pluralize” — including when writing family names, no matter how weird-looking it ends up. The Lincolns, the Williamses, the Tchaikovskys are all correct. Remember, the original family name must stay intact — thus if you attempted “the William’s” you are changing it to say the family name is simply William. (The William’s what, anyway?) If you try to say “the Tchaikovskies” you are creating the last name of “Tchaikovskie.” Too bad if “ys” looks weird; you can either look weird or wrong. You have no idea how many mail boxes and driveway signs I want to wreak violence upon. Which, you know, would be illegal, so I don’t.

When you are actually trying to make proper names possessive and not plural, it gets tricky if the name ends in S. I won’t get into all the nuances of different styles or teachings, but AP Style says if this happens, just add an apostrophe, as in “James’ tie.”

Then come the times when you have to pluralize a word _and_ make it possessive — a recipe for short-circuiting, for sure. Just breathe, though. You can do it. If you want to say you are going to visit the house of your two parents, write “my parents’ house.” Likewise, “the students’ papers,” “the cats’ owner.” Here’s one that combines a bunch of rules: “the Williamses’ boat.”

Sometimes there are moments when a plural noun will work as a modifier, rather than attempting anything possessive. I refer to “the ladies meeting” or “the kids games.” You are saying what type of meeting or games they are, not necessarily any belonging (though “kids’ games” is not an egregious alternative — just don’t try “kid’s games” unless you want to make some poor excluded kid cry). But, “men’s meeting,” “children’s games.” Don’t think too hard.

Remember, sticking an apostrophe in just in case is never a good strategy. Neither is giving up and not even trying to use one. It may seem daunting, but for everyday language the apostrophe’s rules are fairly cut and dried. And anyway, you always can Google it — there are enough sticklers out there to keep you in line. I already have my hands full with this lot.


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Very interesting--thanks for the information.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018 | Report this

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