Catapostrophe

All hail the conquered hero. A battle-weary wordslinger has hung up his guns.

Too young to remember the Old West? “Hang up your guns” means “to put aside in disuse; to give up using” (OED).

(Speaking of guns, in 1881, gun laws in Tombstone, Arizona, were tougher than they are today. After the smoke cleared from the gunfight six blocks from — no, not at — the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested and charged with murder.)

At 96 (he should live and be well), John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, has given up the fight. Richards decided it was a lost cause.

(Barry Popik, a noted wordsleuth, cited an article in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1903, calling Oxford University the “home of lost causes,” adding, “Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.”)

“After some 18 years,” Richards announced, “I have decided to close the Apostrophe Protection Society. There are two reasons. One is that at 96 I am cutting back on my commitments and the second is that fewer organizations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English Language.”

With an almost audible sigh, he added, “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best, but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Some say Richards’ quest was quixotic. If so, he has finally heeded Sancho Panza’s advice: “To withdraw is not to run away, and to stay is no wise action when there is more reason to fear than to hope.”

But what originally inspired Richards? What made him cringe? Whence the wince?

Richards is a veteran copyeditor who — like many of us in the trade — got punctuation punch-drunk from editing slapdash, slapcomma and slapapostrophe writing.

What is an apostrophe, and how did it fall victim to abuse?

Garner’s Modern English Usage spells out the rules: The apostrophe “often indicates the possessive case. Second, it frequently marks the omission of one or more elements and the contracting of the remaining elements into a word (or figure) … will not into won’t; 1997 into ’97.”

A third use — now passing into passé — is to form the plural of abbreviations like CD’s.

“Two contradictory trends — both bad — are at work with apostrophes,” Garner lamented. “First, careless writers want to form plurals with wayward apostrophes. … The second unfortunate trend is to drop necessary apostrophes.”

“Banana’s” makes you bananas. And sometimes you feel like throwing rotten “tomato’s.”

I went to an affair at a posh country club on Long Island that spent millions on renovations. But they couldn’t afford an apostrophe on the door of the “MENS” room.

Garner still holds out some hope, however dim: “The only possible cure is increased literacy.”

At the end of an earlier decade, William Safire took aim at “pundits and panjandrums” who, he predicted, would “pen such pieces as ‘Whither America in the 80s?’ and ‘Through the 80’s and Beyond.’ The big question that faces all of us in these end-of-the-decade thumbsuckers is: Does the plural of a number take an apostrophe?

“The answer is yes. … We are not leaving the 1970s, we are leaving the 1970’s — or if you like to abbreviate, as in the ‘spirit of ’76,’ we are leaving the 70’s. Not the ’70s. (The apostrophe goes only before a single year, not a decade.)”

Sorry, Bill. … AP Style — followed by newspapers — has jettisoned the apostrophe in “1990s” and shifted the apostrophe from 90’s to ’90s. It doesn’t happen often, but the Chicago Manual of Style agrees. In a Q&A session, a rookie editor asked CMOS about “the numeric use of decades. … Is ‘the 90s’ or ‘the ’90s’ correct?” They answered “Strictly speaking, ’90s, with the apostrophe, is correct.”

“An apostrophe — from the Greek word meaning ‘turn away’ — is a mark inserted when you turn away from using a letter,” Safire wrote, “Or it is a doohickey that makes a word possessive, as in ‘Copley’s.’ Or it is used to form the plurals of numbers and letters, like ‘mind your p’s and q’s’ (in learning to print, the ‘p’ is often confused with the ‘q,’ its mirror image). … Separate uses, different reasons — the use of an apostrophe does not imply a possessive outside its specific use as a possessor.”

The problem is some people get possessive about punctuation. They might throw an unnecessary apostrophe into its. (The way to avoid that error is to remember: its is already possessive — like his or hers. It’s is a contraction for “it is.”)

Even the greatest writers weren’t always punctilious about punctuation. In The Life of Language, Sol Steinmetz noted that “Mark Twain reportedly had a habit of omitting punctuation marks and apostrophes in his manuscripts. He just didn’t think they were all that important. His frustrated editor finally wrote him a note insisting that he insert the proper marks in their proper places. To which the author responded by sending him a page filled with punctuation marks, apostrophes, and diacritics, and the attached note, ‘Put them in wherever they seem to fit.’”

Sometimes, punctuation marks and editors have to be put in their place.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.