Sunday, September 27, 2009

Right ‘N Wrong, or Quoting the Apostrophe

The apostrophe may be the single most misused piece of punctuation, though it’s got stiff competition from the colon, the ellipsis, and the dash. It appears where it doesn’t belong (the adjective its, any “nonstandard” plural) and goes missing when it’s most needed (ladies’ room, for instance). Most of the errors are the result, quite simply, of an unwillingness or inability to think logically about the function of the apostrophe while writing. When speaking, you don’t need to choose between your and you’re; the right sound emerges and communication is achieved. The written word, however, is more demanding. Each word must be coordinated with its neighbors orthographically (visually) as well as syntactically, and orthography includes punctuation as well as spelling. Word-processing programs have added a new twist to the problem, but let’s deal with human errors first.

The apostrophe serves multiple functions. To begin with, it is the sign of the possessive, and where it appears depends on whether the noun is singular or plural: lady’s and ladies’, man’s and men’s (not mens’), child’s and children’s, and passion’s and passions’ are all correct, but only one of each pair will be correct in a given context.

The need for an apostrophe and its placement are simple to determine if you will just stop and think for a moment, not only about whether your noun is singular or plural, but also about whether it’s acting as a noun or as an adjective. For the phrase (taken from an article in TV Guide) “one of televisions most well-known doctors,” ask yourself: Is televisions meant in a plural sense? No. Is it the object of the preposition of? No, doctors is the object. Ergo, it is acting as an adjective modifying doctors, and the s is a possessive s in need of an apostrophe, not an s forming a plural: “one of television’s most well-known doctors” is what the writer meant. (As an aside, English has a perfectly good word expressly devised to convey the idea of most well; the word is best. “One of television’s best-known doctors” would be a preferable construction.)

This kind of analysis, known as parsing, is becoming a lost art. Like sentence diagramming, it’s a skill most people are happy to forget, assuming it ever made its way into memory—assuming it was ever taught at all, a presumptuous assumption nowadays. Without this skill, it is impossible to construct a sentence logically, which is why there are so many college grads out there writing error-riddled semiliterate prose.

The possessive pronouns are a particular cause of confusion, because, unlike possessives formed from common and proper nouns, possessive pronouns do not have an apostrophe. It’s is a contraction of it is (see below); the pronoun is spelled its. I don’t think I will ever see hi’s, but I have actually seen her’s, their’s, and even the incredibly unlikely its’ in pieces written by Ph.D.’s, so mere length and depth of education are no cure. This is where it helps to know the difference between a contraction and a possessive adjective, pronominal or otherwise. If you don’t, you will be one of the legions of “educated” people who write things like “put laundry in it’s place.” Office Depot’s recent thick catalog displayed “can’t find what your looking for?” prominently atop every right-hand page in large type, and nobody who looked at it prepublication caught the error. It’s not rocket science, people, but you do have to pay attention and remember a few rules.

The apostrophe is also used to form plurals for single letters: one A, ten A’s (not As, which is too easily read as the word as). This is pretty much the only legitimate use of the apostrophe in plurals. (There is one other, and it appears in the previous paragraph. Can you find it?) I’m tired of seeing things like Busy Bee’s (a maid service), stereo’s, and zinnia’s. Generally, when you see ’s, think possessive, not plural. A recent ad for Juicy Couture exhorts us to “Do the Dont’s.” To which I reply, the Dont’s what? As written, dont’s can only be the possessive singular of dont, but dont is not an English word. To use the contraction don’t as a plural noun, just add s: don’ts. The rule applies to numbers as well. The term 1990s refers to the entire decade; 1990’s is a possessive indicating belonging to the specific year 1990. People in their 50s are middle-aged, and lots of them were born in the ’50s (not 50’s or ’50’s).

These examples illustrate another very important function of the apostrophe, to indicate that something has been omitted, whether as a contraction (isn’t, o’clock, who’s, don’t) or as a clipping-off (singin’, ’tis, ’50s). Again, errors such as dont’s result from a failure to analyze words logically and identify their grammatical functions (they knew there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere!). Here too, written expression is more demanding than oral; there is no need to distinguish between dont’s and don’ts in speech. An audience will understand what you mean, but a reader can best (not most well) judge your meaning by interpreting the words you have written down. If the words you’ve written down aren’t the words you mean, communication fails or is compromised.

And finally we arrive at the heart of this installment of Crotchets: the many misuses and abuses of the apostrophe in word pairs joined by and. For example, the phrase rock and roll is usually pronounced as if the and had lost both its opening vowel and final consonant and all that remains is the en sound. The result is written as rock ’n’ roll, because a letter has been clipped from both the front and back of the central word. Two apostrophes are needed, one for each omission, and yet about 95 percent of the time only one is used, and it’s a toss-up on which side of the n it will appear. Illustrating my point nicely are two current TV shows. One, on the History Channel, is called Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey. The other, on Showtime, is a new reality series called Lock ’n Load. They’re both wrong, but the History Channel scores extra wrongness points for the capital N, and Showtime scores evading-the-issue points for capitalizing every letter in the onscreen title. Such ambidextrous nonsense makes me want to lock and load.

Sometimes people go the extra mile and use two apostrophes only to get lost in the punctuation forest. A Frederick, Md., business that deals in sound systems and recording equipment is named, according to their ad in the Yellow Book directory, Make ‘N’ Music. There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start. First off, the name is not a contraction of make and music; the paired apostrophes are wrong. I assume that what the owners intended was making music with the g clipped, or Makin’ Music. The fact that Make ‘N’ Music and Makin’ Music sound about the same is no excuse. This error arises from a failure to think logically enough to transform speech sounds into grammatically and orthographically correct words.

There is another error here as well, a bit harder to notice. The first “apostrophe” has been turned and is actually an opening single quotation mark, transforming its mate to a closing single quotation mark in the process. These linguistically challenged people have not only mistaken the clipped -ing ending for a truncated and; they have taken the wrongly derived n, capitalized it, and then quoted it: Hey, guys, let’s make ‘N’ music, whatever N might be. Are you shuddering? I did when I first encountered this thing. (I’ll say this for the editors/typesetters at Yellow Book: the listing below the ad had two apostrophes. Well done!) But then I realized the people who devised this name had been led astray by a word-processing program that is mindlessly quoting the apostrophe.

On old-fashioned typewriters, there was no differentiation between single quotes (‘/’) and apostrophes (’) or between opening and closing quotes (“/”); the marks went straight up and down ('/', "/"), and the same key sufficed for both. Only printers with sophisticated typesetting equipment had apostrophes that curved right and quote marks that curved left to open and right to close a quote. Early word-processing programs made you enter symbol codes if you wanted curved marks. Later versions gave you curved double quotes, but always in pairs. The first time you hit the double-quote key, it gave you an opening quote; hit it a second time, and you got a closing quote. This worked fine unless you forgot to close a quote somewhere, after which every quote began with a close-quote symbol and ended with an open-quote symbol. I have edited many papers with this error, and it’s a pain to fix. Why is it they never forgot twice and set things back to rights? Why did they never notice all the backwards quote marks?

Current versions of Word operate on a different set of rules. The program decides which mark to use as a function of position. If you hit the double-quote key following a space or to start a new paragraph, you will automatically get an opening-quote symbol. Hit it after any character, and it will give you a close-quote symbol. This works perfectly for double quotes. Unfortunately, the program can’t differentiate between an apostrophe and a single quote. The same rules apply: hit the key after a space, you get an opening single quote that curves left; hit it after a character, and you get a closing single quote or apostrophe, which are identical, curving right. Most of the time this works just fine, but few people notice when it goes awry.

Most contractions occur in the middle of the words—isn’t, didn’t, you’re, let’s, o’clock—and thus the apostrophe appears correctly oriented as you type. But if you’re typing something like ’tis,’50s, or this ’n’ that, where the apostrophe follows a space, the program is going to give you an opening single quote, viz., ‘tis, ‘50s, this ‘n’ that. The only way around this is to type the symbol immediately after the word and then go back and insert the space (this’n’ thatthis ’n’ that); the program will give you an apostrophe and will not change it when you add the space. However, most people will not notice that they have a single opening quotation mark instead of an apostrophe, and thus I have been noticing nonsense such as Loud ‘N Clear (a personal sound amplifier) and Make ‘N’ Music everywhere I look. It’s not bad enough that few recognize the need for two apostrophes; now they need to recognize that they haven’t got even one. And what is it with the capital N? The word and is never capitalized, and its remnant certainly doesn’t merit such star treatment. Even the Rock ’n’ Roll Queen gets a lowercase n.

And so I beg you to unquote your apostrophe and apostrophize your quote, to say “O quote, I need you to do an about-face and become an apostrophe, lest my poor orthography make me the object of scorn and ridicule.” It will not want to cooperate, you must make it do your will, but in the end you may prevail and take pride in your awareness and your right(eous)ness.

Over ’n’ out!

This is article 11 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Tennis, Anyone?

I have been a big tennis fan for 25 years. My first exposure to the game was watching John McEnroe in the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 1984. I had just bought a television after a decade without one and was flipping through the channels, all five of them. I knew nothing about tennis, the scoring, the rules, the shots, nothing, and yet it was obvious to me that I was watching a genius, a master of the game. I have just spent many hours watching this year’s U.S. Open (yay, Del Potro!) and wish to discuss a couple of pet peeves and an interesting twist on a cliché made by one of the commentators.

The first pet peeve is misuse of the phrase “back to deuce.” I insist that this phrase cannot be used when the score first hits 40-all. The players have arrived at deuce; they cannot go back to deuce until they have played the first one. No exceptions, guys. To say “It’s back to deuce” after the first six points is absurd.

My second pet peeve is directed at ESPN2, which is carrying the U.S. Open for the first time this year, in concert with the Tennis Channel and CBS. The 2 clearly stands for second rate, or at least second class. Every moment of every game is spoiled by the endless parade of scores and trivia across the bottom of the screen. It’s hard enough following the tennis ball getting smacked around the court at tremendous speeds; loss of 10% of the screen and the consequent foreshortening of the relevant image make it even more challenging. If the intrusion was a simple, steady right-to-left flow, it might be possible to ignore it. But no, the words jump and dance and skitter and bounce, a constant annoyance and distraction. I ended up covering the bottom of my screen with duct tape (it took two layers) so I could concentrate on the game. Am I the only one who finds this disrespectful not only of the viewers, but of the sport itself? I always enjoyed Wimbledon on HBO and the U.S. Open on USA. I wish the tennis tournaments would return to the networks that treated them with more respect.

Finally, one of the commentators (it might have been Darren Cahill) misspoke and crossed two clichés to make an amusing hybrid. Referring to a player who had gone from being up a break to losing the set, he said that change in fortune had “knocked the wind out of his socks.” This amalgam of “knocked the wind out of his sails” and “knocked his socks off” raises interesting images of a player being blasted out of his tennis shoes, probably with a noise much like a raspberry or a fart. I don’t think the phrase will catch on, but I did enjoy it.

This is article 10 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

What It Is Is

An odd doublespeak has afflicted the vernacular. It began about two years ago and spread like wildfire from the underbrush to the canopy of society, popping out in the least expected places (President Obama himself on The Late Show with David Letterman). At first I ascribed it to a lingual blip, confusion between or melding of related phrases, but after catching it several dozen times, I realized it was a whole new trend.

I refer, of course, to the repetition of the verb in phrases such as “The thing is is that” and “What it is is,” usually followed by a complete sentence that is in no way modified or affected by this pointless introductory phrase. A related polysyllabic emptiness, “The reason…is because,” is likewise redundant and dispensable, but at least it doesn’t repeat itself.

Whence this stutter-step, this hiccup, this tiny echo? As a lingual blip, a slip of the tongue in extemporaneous speech, it can be explained. The speaker starts out to say “The thing is,” followed directly by the subject (“The thing is, we can’t explain it”). Halfway through, his brain decides to go for a dependent clause instead (“The thing is that we can’t explain it”), leading to the iterative “The thing is is that we can’t explain it.” But this sort of mental-shift error simply would not occur as often as I have been hearing this doublespeak.

The oddest thing about it is, the repetition sounds right, or at least okay, which by the laws of common usage would argue that it is acceptable, if inelegant. (Notice that I did not repeat the is in the preceding sentence.) But I’m not buying it. Redundancy is never good form, and pointless repetition of even a syllable is to be avoided. I can forgive this imitative pipsqueak in off-the-cuff speech, but elsewhere it is anathema.

With apologies to the Rolling Stones: Hey hey, you you, get offa my clause!

This is article 9 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson


Although the French word potpourri has come to mean a collection or assortment, the literal translation is “rotten pot,” a reference to the decayed and decaying material within that makes a sweet smell. This installment of Crotchets is a collection of rotten examples of decaying education, if not civilization, and all the perfumes of Araby will not sweeten the smell.

Surely there isn’t a person in the United States who hasn’t heard of France or seen a map of it. (Whether they could find it on a map without prompts is a different matter for concern.) I love maps and have spent many hours poring over them. Most college students cover their dorm walls with posters of pop stars; I had a map of the world on mine. Maybe that’s why I reacted with a frisson of horror when, flipping through a shoe catalog, I came upon a page of items identified as black, brown, and “bordo.” The last term appeared beside shoes and a handbag of wine red, and clearly this monstrosity was a phonetic misspelling of bordeaux. The city of Bordeaux in France has lent its name, which translates as waters’ edge, to some of the finest wines ever produced as well as the garnet red color associated with wine. This information has escaped the notice or memory of at least one person at Naturalizer, which manufactured the items so identified. I say at least one person, but with reference to the very first article in this series (Who’s To Blame), anywhere from two to ten people other than the Frankenstein who created this monster had to look at it and okay it. Frankly, I am appalled. I wonder whether the persons who put the catalog together had to force themselves to reproduce this misshapen thing or whether, like the perpetrator, they didn’t notice or care.

Now let’s get really down and dirty and talk about compost. Far from elegant, the black gold produced from organic waste by natural agents of decay has become quite chic, a way to feed the earth instead of landfills. Composting is a slow process; even with optimal composition and conditions and regular turning, it will take three to six months to transform dead leaves and manure and food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Creative minds have been at work devising ways to accelerate the process. The word accelerate is built from the Latin root celer, meaning swift, plus the prefix ad, meaning for or toward; in the compound, ad becomes ac for easier pronunciation. The person who invented and named Bio-Excelerator as a composting aid either didn’t know how to spell accelerator (and couldn’t be bothered to look it up) or was creatively making a pun on excel. Call me cynical, but I’m betting it’s error, not wordplay.

The next item is from TV Guide, which generally does a good job of editing its material, with few misspellings or grammatical errors. However, they recently committed a major homophonic boo-boo, a category of error that has become increasingly frequent even as the incidence of misspellings has decreased. I attribute this trend in large part to computer spelling-check programs, which offer alternatives but not definitions. A short article on the reality show Celebrity Apprentice, which admitted that many of the “celebrities” were unknown to the average viewer and identified each briefly, was accompanied by several photographs of the better known and more beautiful. One of the would-be apprentices’ tasks was to sell cupcakes on the streets of New York to raise money for charity, and there is a photo of three lovely young women with the caption “Roderick, Jordan and Kardashian hock their wares.” Oh, dear. Hock has several meanings, the most familiar of which have to do with pawnshops and debt. The word the writer was thinking of is hawk, defined in my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) as “to offer for sale by calling out in the street,” which is exactly what these young women were doing. Confusion between homophones is a difficult problem to fix. There are lots of homophones, whether in pairs (not pears or pares) or in multiples (including the infamous two, too, and to), and it’s very easy to think/speak the right sound and write down the wrong word. What’s the answer? Look up every word that has a homophone? The thought that any given word might have a soundalike may not occur in the heat of composition or under the pressure of a deadline. Let me diffidently suggest that those without the talent for spelling (you know who you are) should look up any word that is not part of their ordinary daily vocabulary when they are writing something intended for publication. Now let me put on my suit of armor to survive the projectiles that will be thrown my way for daring to suggest something so time-consuming and tedious. What I actually want to suggest is that they look up every word, because so many common words have soundalikes (you're and your and it's and its among them, all surely part of anyone's daily vocabulary), but even I know that's impractical.

Perhaps I should add broadcast to publication in making this diffident (foolhardy?) suggestion. Television may be a vast wasteland, but one would like to assume the news shows cleave to a higher standard. Unfortunately, I am losing count of the errors stupid (note that stupid is the adjectival form of stupor and does not refer to intelligence) and ludicrous that have appeared on screen to accompany news stories. A story discussing the proper use of parking lights versus headlights on cars told viewers that parking lights, as the term suggests, should be used only when the vehicle is stationary. The caption on my screen, however, had the word stationery. Perhaps I should use my personalized stationery to write a letter of protest. Then there was the piece on a celebrity who was well known as, according to the caption, a “ladies man.” This is just ignorant. The caption writer had two choices, lady’s or ladies’, but completely failed to recognize the need for a possessive. One station now has a with-it dude on the Thursday night 11 p.m. news to let viewers in on weekend happenings. One of these was a sneak peek opportunity for a movie; the onscreen graphic had it as “sneak peak,” surely a peak experience in anyone’s leisure life. Here’s another outrageous suggestion: Hire people who know how to use the language to write onscreen captions or an editor to vet them before broadcast. Or both.

Finally, we have a puzzling piece of nonsense from the funny pages. The comic strip Parallel Universe made a play on the name Chex Mix, a crunchy snack food based on Chex brand cereal. The caption reads “Czech’s Mix…a delicious snack with just a hint of Slovakia.” I will forgo a rant on the misuse of the ellipsis, because there is a much bigger problem to worry about. In the cartoon illustrating this punny caption, the bag the man is holding bears the words “Chech’s Mix.” Chech it out!! The cartoonist created a neologism that destroys the pun! (The second definition of neologism in my dictionary is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” I love reading the dictionary!) Why does the error appear in the cartoon but not in the caption? This strip is attributed to two people, Patellis and Whelan. Does one write and the other draw? If the writer knew there was an error, why didn’t he get the artist to fix it in the illustration?

Stuff like this puts me in a really rotten mood, and that’s enough stink for one potpourri.

This is article 8 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson