By Jason Menard
Oh, the poor apostrophe. Such a simple sign; so misunderstood. So why is this seemingly insignificant punctuation speck so capable of causing such consternation?
Recently, The New York Times posted an article which used the title “H.M.O.’s Would Treat Medicaid Patients.” See anything wrong with that? Some do, some don’t – and that’s part of the issue. Their style guide dictates an apostrophe for pluralizing initialisms. Personally, I would not use the apostrophe, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule for it.
The problem comes from the fact that many people misuse the humble apostrophe, either out of neglect or ignorance of the rules. What about years? Are they the 90’s or the 90s? Well, that one’s a bit of a trick question — it should be either the 90s or ‘90s. Halloween or Hallowe’en?
And wrong can be right, in certain cases. Boys’ and Boy’s are both correct. Unfortunately, too many people use Boy’s when they’re talking about a plural term: such as boys’ clothing.
There are also the should-be-obvious errors. The people and companies that use apostrophes as a form of pluralization: toy’s, nail’s, and the like. And let’s not even mention proper names ending in ‘s’. Is it Charles’ or Charles’s?
So what’s the solution? Years of education (notice I didn’t say “year’s”) haven’t seemed to make a dent in poor grammar. In fact, thanks to the proliferation of texting and Tweeting, the English language is under assault by the forces of brevity and character limits.
Some are ready to take the path of least resistance and simply kill the apostrophe. In fact, there’s a Web site dedicated to that very cause, aptly named Kill the Apostrophe. On the flip side, we also have the Apostrophe Protection Society.
This is not a new issue. In 2008, there was a bit of a ruckus in England caused by a professor of phonetics at University College London, who called for a culling of the apostrophe. The issue found its way to Parliament’s floor, and it resurfaces from time to time, including today on Ragan.com (http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/42894.aspx). But, as you can see by the quality of the Web sites attacking and defending the apostrophe, this isn’t an issue that’s got tonnes of money behind it either way.
There are those of us who, when faced with a misplaced apostrophe, will grumble and mutter under our collective breath about the misuse. Some of the overly dramatic will issue dire utterances regarding the decline of the English language. Then there are those who simply don’t care. For many of them, punctuation isn’t a road map to clarity, but rather an unnecessary speed bump. Many of these people are in the “I get the point anyways” category.
How we react to such a seemingly insignificant issue says a lot about the standards we set for ourselves in society. For generations, grammar and language were integral parts of the educational curriculum. In addition to learning English, students would also take Greek and Latin to help them learn the etymology of the modern language. I know my ability to write improved dramatically thanks to both French and Latin courses over the years. In fact, that’s where I learned my English grammar rules.
Our society’s focus is now skewed heavily towards comprehension instead of construction. While I continue to gnash my teeth when I hear teachers allow students to skate by using the “I knew what he/she meant” comment, I also understand where it’s coming from. After all, is it more important that a student shows an understanding of the content or is it more important to be able to craft a sentence properly, but completely miss the point of the text? You could argue both sides or a combination of the two.
Personally, while I want the student to understand the point of the text, it’s more important that they be able to clearly and properly express themselves. In our communications-focused world, with new and emerging technologies allowing us to share our thoughts and ideas to the world with just a click of the mouse, the ability to express yourself properly will be the greatest skill you can have.
In addition, a greater understanding of how to write will naturally lead to a better understanding of the content they’re reading in the first place. Literacy is not a one-way street; if you can’t write well, obviously your ability to read will be compromised.
If we lose the apostrophe, what’s next? The period? Verb tense agreements? When you think about the big picture, it’s not that insignificant of a punctuation mark after all.