Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Angry Apostrophe


I recently learned that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. In honor of the occasion--which coincides nicely with my recent blogs dealing with Annoying Errors, I thought we could talk about those interesting squigglies and dots and dashes we use to help readers understand what we mean.

In my last blog, I indicated that one way to get a group of authors ranting and raving was to bring up the subject of copy editors. Among other things, a copy editor is supposed to check our punctuation. For some reason, copy edit changes used to disturb me far more than editorial changes. I would go ballistic when a copy editor removed or added a comma, yet not even blink when an editor suggested I delete three chapters.

Virago It must be some kind of mental condition. That would explain why I still twitch when I remember a very weird set of mistakes in at least one volume of Byron’s Letters and Journals. Throughout, it’s was used where its should be and vice versa. It drove me insane.

Yswfrontsm200dpi I know Byron was clueless about punctuation. He admitted it. I know a dash tended to be his universal punctuation tool--but he did dash very dashingly, we must admit. I can understand his failing to master the art of commas, semi-colons, and colons. An apostrophe, however, is sort of a spelling tool, isn’t it? It marks contractions. And he seemed to understand this aspect of punctuation..sort of...or was that his editor? He uses tons of contractions. They appear in practically every piece of his poetry I quoted in Your Scandalous Ways. Here’s a sample from Beppo.

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear
You should not, I’ll describe it to you exactly:
‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,
Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly;
Row’d by two rowers, each call’d ‘Gondolier,’
It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.

Life_in_london_pg Yes, he had his own unique style but his grammar was fine and his spelling no weirder or more inconsistent than others of his time. It seems bizarre that he got it’s and its backwards consistently. I can’t help thinking those errors were not in the original letters but were committed by a typist, copy editor, or printer and somehow went through the whole production process without anyone realizing--or with everyone thinking that’s how he did it.

I’ve always wondered why it’s and its confuse anybody, but they clearly do because I see it all the time, including in newspapers. Is it because English teachers don’t drum it into kids’ heads early and often enough? It’s one of those things, like the use of lie and lay, that need to be drummed in because it’s easy to get confused. In English we form possessive pronouns differently from the way we form other possessives, e.g., “Pavarotti’s voice was distinctive” but “its engine was broken.”

Chicago_manualHowever, while I can--sort of, and with sorrow in my heart--understand how apostrophes get misplaced, I have never figured out how apostrophes got into the plurals business--as in “Banana’s 89¢ a pound” or “keeping up with the Jones’s.”

Here is one approach to explaining the correct way to use apostrophes. Here's a politer version of same. And here are many examples of punctuation abuse.

A few years ago, Lynn Truss got so exasperated with stupid punctuation that she wrote a book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, about it. Funny thing is, the book’s got errors. Louis Menand, in the New Yorker (28 June 2004), reviewed her book, and suspected it was a hoax, because the errors, he said, started in the dedication and continued with gay abandon throughout the book.

In Jasper Fforde’s alternate reality novel, The Eyre Affair, a form of specially engineered bookworms (as in actual larval things, not nerds--and I cannot possibly get into the technical capabilities of these bookworms) excrete apostrophes. That would explain the wretched excess.

Here's one proposed solution to apostrophe atrocities: abolish that little squiggle.

Fowler_the_kings_englishI don’t agree. I’ve devoted my life to the English language, trying to master its intricacies. Punctuation, grammar--all those dull, technical matters to me are part of the big game of exploring the expressive possibilities of a remarkably elastic language. To eradicate a punctuation mark is like eliminating, say, metaphors. Yes, it would make things simpler, but should language always be simple? A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it’s not necessarily the most beautiful route.

Merely my opinion, of course, but when the technical niceties of language are under discussion, people can get very...intense. In the words of Randy Newman, "I could be wrong...But I don't think so." And I think he speaks for all of us.

Originally posted at Word Wenches.

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