By NABP Member Mary McIntosh, Ph.D.
Freelance writer and editor
Save the Apostrophe!
Have you noticed that punctuation errors have increased in the last few years, not just in private letters or emails, or on business owners’ signs (You may notice the correctly used apostrophe in this sentence.), but in newspapers, magazine articles, and professional publications of all types? I can’t do much about the weather except try to maintain a sunny disposition, but perhaps I can try to raise our consciousness about the need to improve our use of punctuation. Our commas, semicolons, dashes, and apostrophes should be helping us to make the world more clear and pleasant—perhaps even fun—to live in; they shouldn’t be causing more confusion. (Please also notice the correct use of the semicolon in the preceding sentence.) They are meant to be an aid to communication, not a detriment or useless impediment. I’m convinced that some think the apostrophe is merely decorative. Of most concern, however, is that the misuse of punctuation encourages the negative trends of our society, as you will see.
I would say that the apostrophe is the most abused punctuation mark, with the semicolon running a close second. The misuse of the apostrophe might be attributed to more than the simple ignorance which may result from a lack of instruction in grade school or beyond. Typically, apostrophe abuses occur when we try to denote possession or pluralization. However, the apostrophe should not be used to denote a simple plural, as in the following sentence which appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Portland Home magazine: “This natural air movement, called the stack effect, is how chimney’s work” (p. 11). In this sentence, a “chimney” does not possess the verb “work.” Nor would it ever. Only nouns or gerunds can be possessed. (A gerund is a present participle used as a noun, as in the following example: “Working is fun if you like what you do for a living. Because he likes his job, Bill’s working here is fun.”) There are other plural nouns in the same article. I am puzzled as to why “chimney’s” was pluralized by inserting the apostrophe. I can only think that this error either results from confusion or from a need to intensify the plural by using an extra (albeit unnecessary) mark.
Another sentence from the same article includes a correct use of the apostrophe, but unfortunately also includes a rather typical spelling error: “To avoid moisture’s negative affects (correct spelling: effects), a crawl space should be fully sealed and isolated from the ground and the outside.” So why the error in the first sentence? Perhaps we could attribute the “chimney” error to neglect or a typo, but even then, a good editor should have caught it.
Apostrophe errors are ubiquitous on signs, and especially in proper last names. So we have mens and womens restrooms instead of men’s and women’s restrooms, and The Smith’s instead of The Smiths, when we are trying to indicate who lives in a certain house. Contractions like “don’t,” where the apostrophe should stand in for a missing letter, or plurals of letters or numbers, such as “P’s” and “Q’s,” also invite errors, if we’re not minding ours.
I really think that the misuse of the apostrophe is only the beginning of a series of changes in standard grammar and punctuation that we will see as our civilization continues to speed up and to deteriorate. It is a small reflection of the relaxation of standards that we see everywhere. But what concerns me more is that we will not know what belongs to whom if we are making simple plurals into possessives. Our use of language reflects how we think and feel. Words are symbols of our thoughts. In reverse, words can determine our thoughts and feelings. If we don’t know what is ours and what is someone else’s, where are our identities as unique individuals? We need the boundaries that punctuation like the apostrophe protects. Our world is dysfunctional enough, and if it gets worse, I’ll have to start an apostrophe support group, or even an Apostrophe Abusers Anonymous.
I ask you to help avert a worsening crisis, and thus raise your own consciousness, by sending me examples of apostrophe errors, or questions about the use of this and other marks of punctuation. We can work together to save our language and make the world a clearer, more satisfying place to live. We can hope for more sunlight, too, but alas, even the weathermen, faithful to predict as they are, are powerless to help.