Everyone has stuff that bugs them. Most often those revolve around the things in our lives that mean the most to us, whether it be an intangible but important concept like feminism or racism, or a tangible but silly thing like the way people drive. Every day I hear people around me complaining about the most ridiculous stuff. But we all have our little pet peeves, things we consider important that other people couldn’t care less about.
For instance: I don’t care about traffic. I used to: I would sit in traffic for an hour or more each day and, by the time I got home, I had heartburn and stress and felt like hell. Then I gave up caring, realizing that I’d get home one way or the other. I also started biking to work, and realized that I, and everyone else driving, was not stuck in traffic. We *WERE* traffic. (I’m not any more, since I don’t drive much, but there you go.)
Here’s what I do care about: language. I am, after all, a writer. Language forms the basis of our civilization: our entire reality is based around our understanding of words and what they mean. I could cite examples like the Inuit and their many words for snow, or the fact that our culture has nearly as many words for money. I could wax rhapsodic about the meaning we ascribe to words, especially curses and insults, and how the power of a word is based in a common agreement of what words mean.
But that can wait for another post. Today I’m going to yammer, not wax, about my pet peeve; the apostrophe.
Yup. That little half-quote drives me absolutely batty. Well, that’s not true – what drives me batty is the constant misuse of the poor little sucker. I mean, really, it’s not that difficult, and yet I see people using it incorrectly all the time. Now, I know what youre probably thinking: its one little bit of punctuation, one of many punctuation mark’s that distinguish meaning in our written language.
Yes, there are three mistakes in that last sentence. You have no idea how hard that was for me.
OK, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to explain *why* punctuation is important. There’s a great book about it called Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. The story behind the title goes like so:
A panda goes into a restaurant, takes a seat, and orders dinner. The waiter is nonplussed, but the maitre d’ maintains his cool demeanor and the panda is served. After the panda has finished, it rises from its chair and pulls out a gun, which it fires a few times into the ceiling before leaving the restaurant. The waiter rises from behind the bar where he was hiding and looks at the maitre d’. “Why did it do that?” he says. In response, the maitre d’ hands him a dictionary. “Look up pandas,” says the maitre d’. The waiter looks up the word, and sees the following:
“Panda,” it says. “Large marsupial native to central China. Eats, shoots, and leaves.”
Of course the comma’s dont belong. The sentence means something completely different with them in it. Its the same thing with apostrophe’s. The rules are simple: plural word’s, like the word “words” in this sentence, dont get apostrophes. Possessives – as in, “the boy’s room”, or “the panda’s gun” have an apostrophe-s added to the root word. But what if the word already has an s – like the plural words from before? Well, then the apostrophe goes after the s – as in, “the boys’ room” (multiple boys in the same room), or “the pandas’ guns”.
The final use of the apostrophe is, of course, in the contraction. I use them all the time – don’t, where’s, they’re, it’s. The clever bit here is that the apostrophe is replacing the missing letters: do not=don’t, where is=where’s, etc. The one nearly everyone gets wrong is “it is”. I see the contraction “it’s” used in place of “its” all the time. Ugh. It’s only three letters. Look, just remember: read the sentence back to yourself, and if it makes sense with “it is”, you can use the apostrophe.
Realistically, in the English language there are many more times we use plural words than any of the times we use apostrophes. It’s possible we use plurals more often than all the apostrophe uses put together! The best rule of thumb – if you can’t remember when to use them, and when not to – don’t. You’re likely to be right more often than not.
Please, for the love of God and my sanity. Stop with the apostrophes.
Oh, by the way – there’s another (sort of) way to use apostrophes. Like contractions, apostrophes are used to replace missing letters in words, as in “this ol’ house” or “three o’ clock” (originally “three of the clock”). Yeah, don’t worry about that one so much. That’s really rare unless you’re a writer.