Tag Archives: apostrophes

‘Tis the Season for Pet Peeves: How to Make A Family Name Plural.

Here’s the primer. Save those apostrophes for the times you really need one—and that means NOT in plurals!

Check the five basic comma rules

SHOUTING:

NO APOSTROPHE IN THE PLURAL OF YOUR FAMILY NAME—OR YOUR CHARACTER’S FAMILY NAME. APOSTROPHES ARE FOR POSSESSIVES AND CONTRACTIONS. THAT’S IT!

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How Much Grammar Do You Need, Part V: Rules I’ve Seen Erudite People Break–

—but that other erudite people will definitely notice!

One of Joe Williams’s categories included errors erudite people make but no one notices. Even the erudite people preaching against the error make it and don’t catch themselves.

Bill, the dog, critiques

He tells me when I’m wrong!

But another category: errors erudite people DO notice, and react negatively to—the implication being that these are errors erudite people scrupulously avoid.

Ahem.

I recently read the following in the New York Times:

The Arlington police had went to the Classic Buick GMC dealership Friday just after 1 a.m. when a caller reported that a man was standing on top of a car in the lot “stamping on the windshield trying to break it,” according to a 911 call.

I’m not posting this here as a statement on the events being described (you can learn about that elsewhere.) I’m providing it because it commits—in the New York Times of all places!—one of those fairly egregious errors an agent or editor or any other “well-educated” reader definitely will notice—and judge.Sad Editing!

(Tip for that NYT writer: if “have” or “had” is part of the verb phrase, go with the past participle. Otherwise choose the simple past.)

So Rule #1 that won’t be overlooked is use the correct verb form!

Rule # 2 on this list: Know the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Trivial? Absolutely. Will not knowing the difference really matter? In some cases, you bet.

I suspect this one results from writing too quickly and proofing on the screen with a deadline looming. If by some chance keeping these straight plagues you, there’s unfortunately no easy way to remember, unless it’s to go with the one that makes the least sense. You’d think a possessive, like “The dog chased its/it’s ball,” would take an apostrophe, wouldn’t you, since possessives are formed with apostrophes? But “its,” the correct choice, is kin to “her” and “his.” Just fix in your mind how silly “He ate hi’s supper” would look, and you may be able to remember to pick the one without the apostrophe.

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes,

Rule #3 on this list is do not form plurals with apostrophes.

I saw this done in the crawl on Good Morning America! But it’s like announcing that the writer has been reading more roadside veggie stands than novels.

Rule #4? Do not put commas in these two places.

Comma rules can look complicated. Recently I eavesdropped on professional editors trying to decide whether to insert a comma based on whether they heard “a pause” or not. But people hear pauses in different places. There are “rules” for commas. I find that the basic list of uses for commas in handbooks, or on sites like this one, make sense.

I consider commas one of the most important tools for clear writing. They mark off sections of sentences and help me, as a reader, know what’s coming next (are we still in the appositive, or have we returned to the independent clause?). In this post, I just want to emphasize two places where I’ve seen commas sneak in. (And my agent from years back said specifically that she’d stop reading a query the minute she spotted one of these.)

Forbidden place A) Between a subject and its verb. “Gloria, went out to lunch.” I don’t hear a pause there. Do you? Or, more understandably: “One of the reasons I don’t like that play, is. . . .” Here, the length of the subject phrase may make a writer feel as if it’s time for a pause.

The only time a subject should be followed by a comma is when some kind of “interrupting” element comes between the subject and its verb: “Gloria, however, hated the restaurant we’d chosen.” Or “Gloria, who hates Chinese food, went with us to the Chinese buffet because it was cheap.”

Forbidden Place B) After a coordinating conjunction.

The most dangerous place for this interloping comma is after the conjunction between two complete sentences: “I hope you will consider representing my novel but, I know you have many submissions to read.” The comma goes before the “but,” never after, unless there’s an interrupter, and then you need two commas: “I hope you will consider representing my novel, but, like all agents, you have many submissions to read.”

None of these errors directly impacts communication. At worst, they create little hiccups in the flow of the text. Except that, as Williams points out, error is in the eye of the beholder. What’s a hiccup for me might well be a coughing fit for someone else. Agents and editors qualify, at least in general, as erudite readers. Even if the staff of the New York Times didn’t catch that “had went,” they probably will.

Do you have your own candidates for rules you really can’t get away with breaking? Leave a comment and let me know!

Cats as kibbitzers

They have their opinions, too!

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How Much “Grammar” Do You Need? Part III . . . .

Questions?I’m picking up on my last post, in which I discussed Joe Williams’s “Phenomenology of Error,” published in College Composition and Communication in 1982, where he ably demonstrates that even the most erudite language mavens only find errors when they are explicitly looking for them, and thus miss bunches, even in their own work.

Williams developed his own rather complicated categories of errors. Of course, he’s an academic writing for other academics, and the essay is more than 30 years old, so his examples may not be the ones we’d pick today if we wanted to duplicate his categories.

But a couple are.

Briefly, his categories are

  • Rules we notice and respond to with a shriek when they’re violated. (“Shriek” is my word, equivalent to the reactions from experts Williams notes in his introduction, people who label such things as “OK,” “hopefully,” and “He invited Mary and myself to dinner” as examples of an “atrocity,” a “detestable vulgarity,” and “garbage.”) In this category of noticeable rules, Williams places basic violations of Standard English structure, such as “I seen” and “He don’t.” Note that these locutions don’t impede understanding. They’re perfectly clear, and perfectly acceptable in many contexts. (In some dialects, such as Black English, ways of talking that violate Standard English are actually rules of that dialect, with their own influence over such matters as time and continuity of action. See the resources here and here to understand this point better.)
  • Rules we really don’t notice even when they’re violated—despite knowing that the rule exists. Williams specifically offers the that/which distinction, which (see, I used it right) even such eminences as Jacques Barzun cheerfully violated within a page of telling us not to. Later I’ll have a little to say about this rule, since it falls clearly into one of my own categories.
  • Rules we notice when they’re observed because they call attention to themselves, a small class. His example is “It is I,” which is indeed “correct” but which jumps off the page at most people. I suspect that “between you and me” is rapidly becoming such a conspicuous instance of correctness (yes, it is correct) for many. I actually heard someone say “between he and I” this morning on a news show. Looks as if the subjective case after a preposition is coming into its own.
  • Rules that, when violated, actually elicit a favorable reaction from individuals. Williams offers an example of a rule he actually prefers to see broken: using “than” rather than “from” after “differently” when what follows is a clause and not a noun. I think there are more rules like this, rules that, if broken, improve prose. I’ve already pointed out one possible candidate: choosing to start a sentence with “but” (assuming you think this violates an actual rule). I’ll propose more soon.

This is possibly the best place to remember that languages change. Effort like those the French have made to freeze the language are flung down and stomped on on every street corner, in every hostel. All you have to do is read something written in the 1700s—oh, say, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“—to appreciate how punctuation, spelling, and diction have shifted since then. Students required to read such texts complain mightily about how badly written they are. English is, as we speak, in the process of losing the apostrophe (a vagrant and an intruder to start with).

I actually regret this loss; I’ll horrify my college-writing colleagues by siding just a little with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, agreeing with her that it might sometimes be helpful to know how many people we’re talking about in a sentence like “The travelers bags will fit in the overhead bins.” A simple apostrophe would tell you, and this Wikipedia article gives more examples of useful clarifications an apostrophe can make. But I am not going to emulate the folly of the French.

I’m approaching the task of establishing my own categories of errors. My main concern is to keep things reasonably simple, and not to get tangled up trying to explain things handbooks or sites like the Purdue Owl explain pretty well. I’ll set up the categories here, and then clarify and defend them in upcoming posts:

  • Rules you really don’t need to worry about
  • Rules you absolutely must obey
  • Rules that are actually judgment calls. Breaking one of these rules (like starting a sentence with “but”) is a gamble. If you absolutely hate what following the rule does to your prose—well, you pays your money and you takes your chance.

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