My husband knows how much I want to read the last Larsson. But when he looked over my shoulder at the cover online and saw "Hornet's" he immediately asked with a laugh, "Only one hornet?" Such are the joys of a marriage of true minds (or a copyeditors' marriage).

 

Apostrophes loom large in any discussion of grammar and style. Lynne Truss's "greengrocer's" apostrophe in the classic Eats Shoots and Leaves; an entire 2-hour class in the grammar course I taught at the New School; a federal government website . . . all indicate the obsession.

 

That's right, the federal government actually maintains a website that answers the question, How do you spell Veterans Day? (Veterans Day, Veteran's Day, or Veterans' Day?) Worth a visit.

 

Apostrophes are marks that indicate something--a letter or letters--has been dropped, or ellided. The word comes from ancient Greek, thru Latin and Romance languages. In English, apostrophes appear in contractions and in the possessive forms of nouns.

 

In contractions such as "don't" or "he's," the apostrophe stands in for the missing "o" and "i"; in constructions such as "rock 'n' roll," the apostrophes stand in for the missing "a" and "d."

 

In possessive forms, the line of descent from missing letter to ' is a bit more complicated, but once again, the apostrophe stands in for missing letters in an old form of the genitive, or possessive--the "belonging to" or "of" form of a noun, which in older forms of English were often spelled with "es." The apostrophe takes the place of the "e." But it's evolved from there.

 

In modern English, an apostrophe after a singular noun, like "hornet's" or "ocean's," makes the word indicate "of the hornet" or "of the ocean." An apostrophe after the plural form, like "hornets'" or "oceans'," makes the word indicate "belonging to the hornets" or "of the oceans." The boy's car is different from the boys' car; the car is owned by one or several dudes depending on the apostrophe placement.

 

Looks simple, but in actual usage it isn't. Much discussion centers on the distributive nature of the possessive: Giuseppe and Ellen's recipes may be one thing; Giuseppe's and Ellen's recipes are another. In Veterans Day, the federal website explains that Veterans means "day for the veterans," not "day of the veterans," making Veterans an attributive noun rather than a possessive. Regarding April Fool's Day, Merriam-Webster explains that both Fools' and Fool's are acceptable variants, although most would agree that the day belongs to the April Fool, an iconic figure, and not to the many who will be fooled by pranks and practical jokes that day.

 

But the apostrophe is no joke, and it's essential to understand its correct use, lest one's writing fall prey to embarrassing mistakes--like the oft-observed confusion between it's and its.


What's the most embarrassing, or entertaining, apostrophe misuse you've encountered? You'll get credit next week as we continue our discussion!

 

Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's currently a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

 

 

Comments
by on ‎03-31-2010 06:09 PM

That nest belonged to "Hornet the Hermit".   He's anti-social.   :smileyhappy:

by on ‎03-31-2010 07:49 PM

Ellen,

 

I've never been embarrassed, that I can remember, by my use of the apostrophe.  But I'm sure I've used it wrong, a time or two.  But, in the process of how my brain works, this subject made me think of the word, aint, or ain't, which is used many times by Virginia Woolf.  I smile at the changes in our language.  I just found this sight that might interest you...I haven't read it through, as yet, but found the beginning very interesting.  The dictionary, and Virginia Woolf

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎04-01-2010 10:21 AM

Kathy S,

I'm glad you have a healthy relationship with the apostrophe! LOL.

I've encountered more than a few people who are a bit timid about it because they don't quite see how it works, or because it isn't used the same way in their first language, but once its mechanism is clear it is much less mysterious.

As a party interested in descriptivist grammar, I'll want to take a look at that Virginia Woolf book. "Ain't" is perfectly grammatical and quite common among several dialects in English, just not in the dialect known as Standard American English (or as I call it, Standard Edited American English, aka "cash English"). Privileging that dialect to the point of ignoring the long, vigorous history of "ain't" as substandardor not using it anywhere, anytime, is just silly. I am interested to see what Virginia did.

by on ‎04-01-2010 11:30 AM

To hear the word, ain't, it's literally like hearing fingernails on a chalk board, for me.  It feels like an awkward slang.  I can't help it, it's just how I was "brought up", being told not to say/use it.

 

I dated a guy in college who used that word, and I stupidly corrected his "English", and he said, "well, it's in the dictionary, ain't it?"  I said, yes, a lot of words are in the dictionary, but do we use ALL of them?  Well, many years later, I've gotten used to reading that word, ain't, only because VW used it....and if she used it, I guess it's okay with me!  I just don't use it myself. [[shiver]]  :smileyhappy:  If Aren't is spelled out as Are Not, can you tell me how to spell out Ain't?

 

I was born and raised in the U.S., and can't imagine having to "learn" English, as someone who has never spoken it.  I really have to stop and think, sometimes, when I'm writing....I find I use were, when I should be using, where, and then there is their, or they're, too, to and two, etc., I know all of the differences, but my fingers don't always translate it from my brain correctly...Like I said, I can't even imagine!

 

btw:  Our B&N spell check doesn't recognize this word!  LOL!

by on ‎04-01-2010 10:29 PM

(snort) Hmm I'd really anoy you then Kathy. Ain't is spelled out "is not". Or for the spelling of a common useage "Sure nough ain't real" as "Sure enough, it is not real". But (shrug) I was brought up knowing both a decent useage of proper english, regional southern slang, old english/french pronounciation, a touch of German, a smidge of creole, a pinch of gaelic, and basic (childs level) Siouian. I've learned to adapt. As would anyone who converses in this country needs to do.

 

English and American have long since branched off into differnt paths. The American branch of english includes regional slang mixed with a heady whole sale theft of non-english words and non-english slang.  That's why there are American English dictionarys.

by on ‎04-02-2010 11:49 AM

Tigger, thanks for the explanation.... you could never annoy me.....just keep the snorting down to a dull roar! lol

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