My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Richards, was an interesting character. He has a great sense of humor, and was a bit of a ham in front of the class, but he was also passionate about using, and writing, proper English. The tendency of people to use apostrophes erroneously especially bugged him.
The apostrophe, Mr. Richards explained, has two uses: to indicate possession, or to show that a letter or number is missing. “You don’t use ‘apostrophe s’ to make a plural!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t people get it right?” Then he put his forehead down on the desk to illustrate his frustration. The kids in the class laughed, of course, but I’m sure they remembered that lesson, as I still do.
So I naturally thought of Mr. Richards when I saw this sign warning drivers about runners on the road for the Stonington 6K race. I suppose the sign maker could have been indicating that a single runner is ahead, but we all know it’s another example of an all-too-common apostrophe fail. I can see Mr. Richards’ forehead falling to the desk, and hear his plaintive “Why can’t they get it right?” even now.
Is any punctuation mark more misused than the poor apostrophe? How often do you see a sign, like this one in downtown Columbus, where an apostrophe has been weirdly inserted for some mysterious reason, causing inevitable confusion? In this case, are multiple condos for lease, or is the sign supposed to communicate a contraction of “condo is for lease”? And don’t get me started on whether there’s a person named “Condo” involved in some fashion and there is supposed to be any possessive element to what is being conveyed.
It’s amazing how many commercial signs have apostrophe errors. If you are going to put up a big sign about something for sale, wouldn’t you also invest in a proofreader?
After some sternly worded exchanges, with many grammarians and wannabe English stylists weighing in, the B.A. Jersey Girl found an authoritative source that was able to bridge the gap between our competing positions and resolve the dispute. She discovered that Bryan Garner’s Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style acknowledged that while many style manuals follow the rule that always requires an apostrophe s to indicate a possessive, former journalists follow the Associated Press Style Manual and don’t add an apostrophe s when the word in question ends in s. In short, both sides have a basis for their opinion, so we shook and decided to leave that issue behind.
I’m all for adding a little dash to writing, but I’m not a fan of the “em dash” because it’s too long and is used without spaces on either side. I’m a proponent of the dash that is formed with two hyphens and a space on both sides. I think it looks neater and more orderly, whereas the “em dash” looks like a spear that is impaling the neighboring words. I’m a fan of space in writing, and the “em dash” makes a sentence look crowded. I say tap the space bar, give your words space to breathe, and let the “em dash” be damned.
The other day we were putting the finishing touches on a brief when an apostrophe argument arose. We needed to indicate the possessive for an individual whose last name ended in s. So, the question was, should it be “Mr. Jones‘ car” or “Mr. Jones’s car?”
I always use the former construction, but the Jersey Girl was adamant that the second construction is the only permissible approach. As is so often the case with grammar matters, the dispute became heated, passionate positions were staked out on both sides, voices were raised, and the Soccer Star, another member of the team on the case, heard the argument and came from a nearby office to enter the fray. From there, the dispute escalated quickly, and if it had continued one of the participants probably would have been seen galloping away from the area with a trident lodged in his or her back. But, because we needed to get a draft out the door, I yielded to the Jersey Girl’s resolute insistence that we must go with “Mr. Jones’s car,” and permanent injury was avoided.
I prefer the use of the apostrophe only in this situation, because I think “Mr. Jones’s car” looks clunky. In addition, when I read and write I admittedly tend to sound things out in my head, and the Jersey Girl’s approach with its multiple back-to-back sibilants leaves me hissing like a snake.
Still, it was interesting to see how much people can care about grammar. And there’s nothing like a good grammar fight to get the tridents flying!