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?
The apostrophe battle has been amicably settled.
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.
Alas, a new punctuation fight looms directly ahead. The virgin battleground involves something called an “em dash”—this super-long dash that, according to some grammarians, can be used as a substitute for a parentheses, can replace appositives that contain commas, and can be used to set off a sudden change in the direction of a sentence, among other uses. It’s called the “em dash” because the length of the dash is about the same width as a capital M.
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.
Many people don’t really care about grammar, but for those who do correct usage is a very important issue. And one of the reasons that the question of precisely how to show that the car belongs to Mr. Jones is a point of great dispute is that there is no universally recognized right answer. Some authorities take the position that, whenever a possessive is used with a word ending in “s,” an “apostrophe s” must be added, others say that only an apostrophe should be used, and still others acknowledge that there is no correct answer and the key thing is to be consistent.
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!