Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Poor Abused Apostrophe and the Confusion It Causes

by Janis Patterson

I will admit it, I am a stickler for the correct usage of the English language, which means that these days my grammatical sensibilities spend a great deal of time being lacerated, usually over the abuse and misuse of the apostrophe.

The apostrophe is a humble and very useful part of grammar. Not only does it indicate ownership both singular and plural, it denotes a shortening of a phrase by standing in for a missing letter - both very needful in writing if one is not to sound stilted and stuffy. Properly used, it can clarify a point like nothing else.

So why do so many people abuse it? The rules, even though not totally consistent, are easy to learn and follow.

For example, ‘its’ is a possessive, meaning something belonging to it, where ‘it’s’ is a contraction for ‘it is.’ This is an exception to the general rule, but certainly not egregiously complicated.

Customer’s is a singular possessive - something belonging to a specific customer. Customers is a simple plural - more than one customer. Customers’ means something belonging to all or a great group of customers. Is that so hard?

Apparently. Not long ago I wanted to go to a certain store, but the large - and largely empty - parking lot had a sign proclaiming ‘Customer’s Only’. Being of a precise (and admittedly bloody-minded) nature, I parked carefully across the street where I could be seen by the cashier and walked over. Once inside I asked why they restricted their parking lot to only one customer when it was of a decent size.

Unable to answer, she called for her manager, who didn’t understand either even after I explained the different between singular and plural possessive and voiced concern that they were driving away business because of their signage. I even told them that they were remiss in not explaining what exactly was the singular customer’s. Though in this ungrammatical day and age I suppose parking could be logically extrapolated.

They asked me to leave. And I guess that some people have no shame in parading their ignorance to all and sundry, because until they day they went out of business (by a lack of multiply parked customers, I wonder?) they never changed their sign.

Again, in a novel I found the character talking (obvious in the context) about a family named Smith. It read something like, “The Smith’s are going to rent a beachhouse.” Well, this is wrong on so many levels. First of all, which singular Smith? And which singular Smith’s what? In this case it should have been a simple plural - the Smiths. 

Sadly there is a definite prejudice against self-published novels, especially romance, and examples of this disregard of correct apostrophe etiquette are often cited as the reason. What is never mentioned is that there are the same kind - and sometimes worse - examples are to be found in the theoretically superior and sacrosanct precincts of traditional publishing in a rapidly expanding number.

Something like “...it’s appearance was unworthy of the care one would expect the Carters family shop to have expended on something that would bear the Carter’s name...” is not only confusing, it pulls the reader out of the story, it becomes an exercise in translation. And no writer wants that, does he?

Like its much more challenging cousin the comma, the poor apostrophe is abused and misused with a blatancy that is astonishing, especially since the correct usage is so simple. All writers - and readers - should learn the proper forms and meanings.

And stop being an Apostrophe Abuser!


Morgan Mandel said...

Sometimes I'm tempted to put an apostrophe after its when it's possessive, but I refrain because in that case that one doesn't need an apostrophe. It does get crazy when someone's name ends in an s and I need to make it possessive.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I'm told by my grandkids that grammar isn't being taught these days. I find that discouraging. As a former English teacher, I taught students at the middle school level proper grammar. Texting looks for shortcuts and encourages illiteracy.

I think there remains a prejudice toward self-published books. But some authors have overcome it. I'm certain you will too.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Certainly in agreement. When I make a mistake with an apostrophe it's usually because I'm typint too fast and not paying attention.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

typing--that's what I mean.