Monday, November 26, 2007

Apostrophe Catastrophe!

I'm a pretty even-tempered person under normal circumstances. But we all have our irrational peeves, and mine is bad grammar. Okay, if writing just isn't your thing, I understand--I stink at math, after all. But I don't publish my sorry attempts at algebra and fractions. I never do math in public. My position is that people who don't have a solid grasp on the English language should not write anything that goes public, either--not without a proofreader to do damage control.

I have plenty of grammar gripes--too many to cover in just one post. So today I'm focusing on the most misunderstood piece of punctuation ever to mark a page: the humble apostrophe.

I see more apostrophe catastrophes in stores, newspaper ads, internal business communications, and websites than I do any other grammatical mistake. And every time I see one, I make an automatic judgment about the business or person involved. I think uneducated. Careless. Not too bright. I know many people would think that's a little harsh--but it's not. Your writing is your way of communicating with customers, clients, and partners--and if your apostrophes are always getting away from you, they'll think those things, too. Here are a few of the most common apostrophe mistakes I've seen--and how to fix them.

Apostrophes with plural nouns. I can't say how many times I've been in a department store and seen a big sign for "SHOE'S." Most writers would probably think something like shoe's what? Some sort of accessory department for shoes, perhaps? Like shoe polish or laces? Say it with me, folks: Plural nouns DO NOT need an apostrophe. If you're talking about more than one shoe--or if you want to indicate the location of the shoe department in your store, maybe--your sign should read "SHOES."

This error in public: The apostrophe problem in our country is so great that someone actually dedicated a blog to catching the errors. There are plenty of examples here, particularly this one here from a sign in a public school. When the teachers themselves don't know what to do with their apostrophes, it's no wonder nobody else does.

Possessive nouns with no apostrophes. It's equally common to find possessive nouns traipsing around in public without their apostrophes. You know we're in a sad state when sites that market to writers omit their apostrophes from their possessives. Whose store is this? Certainly not a writer's store--although you might be able to buy a writer here.

This error in public: Check out this resource for writers. Come on, guys--you're marketing to writers and you leave your apostrophe out of your intro headline. Your target audience is going to think exactly what I do: if you can't even tell a plural from a possessive, what can you possibly tell me about writing as an industry?

Plural vs. singular possessives. When you're talking about something owned by one person or thing, your apostrophe comes before the s: Joe's book, the car's wheel. If you're talking about something owned by two or more people or objects, the apostrophe comes after the s: The students' books, the cats' tails. This one is often confused. I see a lot of businesses trying to avoid making a mistake by eliminating the apostrophe altogether--or even the plural itself.

This error in public: This magazine has a prime example of a singular possessive where there should be a plural possessive: "Writer's Blogs." So I guess this means all the blogs on their list are written by one extremely prolific writer, right? And here's an example of a site that just got rid of the apostrophe altogether. There are actors and blogs on this site, but one is not related to the other.

It's vs. Its. These are confusing because they buck the possessive rule. "It's" is a contraction of "it is," while "its" is the possessive--"The tree dropped its leaves." Because it's an exception to the rule, this is an easy one to screw up.

This error in public: Here's a blog with the classic "it's/its" mistake loud and proud in the title. Apparently, bad grammar is a nursing thing. Oh, and here's an example of the opposite problem on a well-known news site. Shame on you, ABC.

Contraction confusion. There are all kinds of ways to screw up contractions. One of the most common ones is the "your/you're" dilemma. "Your" is a possessive; your food or your drink. "You're" is a contraction of you and are--you're a grammar genius. Despite the simplicity, these are often tragically mangled.

This error in public: This guy is obviously a victim of grammatical crime.

Despite the careless way many people write, grammar does matter. It makes an impression on others, for good or ill. Avoid these apostrophe blunders, and you'll avoid making the wrong impression on your audience.


Thor said...

Thanks for the link! I'm glad that it's not just me who gets annoyed by these Neanderthals.

Minion said...

I can't tell you how often I have to make these corrections! I'm not a grammar freak, but there are some things that really ought to be standard (especially in an office job!).

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Thor: I love your blog and am happy to promote it. Apostrophe errors are NOT victimless crimes.

@Min: tell me about it. I used to work in an office full of people with writing-related jobs and I was the only person in the entire place who could string a sentence together. Oddly enough, my job there was only marginally writing-related--mostly I had to troubleshoot a company-specific software program. Talk about misguided casting.