Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Please Tell Me What Has Led You to Believe that Apostrophes are Optional

Okay, first of all:

I don't know if this really counts as me being back in the strictest sense of the word. I shouldn't actually even be writing this post because I have far too much marking to do and, in fact, should probably have finished it weeks ago. I'll be working on this post in between my increasingly desperate attempts to mark the last six papers in a pile of a hundred and twenty. It isn't even a "pile" because--somewhat against my will--I am marking online. Marking online is an agonising procedure I would not wish on my worst enemy.* I am about to go mad, and one of the reasons I am about to go mad will be fuelling today's Document of Puppies and Happiness.

Hello, undergrads. Did you miss me? I expect you didn't. While I was gone, did you post on Internet message boards every day? You did? That's wonderful! Did your posts contain plurals? They did! Did your posts contain possessives? Fantastic! Did you mix up the goddamn plural and possessive forms in every bloody post because you had never ever bothered to learn a single blessed thing about apostrophes?

I know the answer to this one. Do you know why I know the answer to this one?

I know the answer to this one because every single one of you is apparently in my class right now. That is why. Damn it all to Hades.

I am shocked to glance back over my index page and realise that I have apparently never ranted about apostrophes. The omission must be remedied. I am back, my dear, dear friends, so that I can terrify you into learning to use apostrophes properly. This is my follow that matter how matter how far. I feel a lot like Don Quixote sometimes.**

The apostrophe is a strange little beast. It has been around for a fairly long time, but it is still a relatively recent arrival to the English language and has probably been misused since its first appearance, which was likely--according to this Random Paper I Have Found on the Internet, at least--at some point in the sixteenth century. It has two main functions in English: 1) to indicate that something is missing from a word or phrase and 2) to denote possession in combination with the letter "s."

Simple? You would think so. However, if undergrads treat commas like the chocolate sprinkles of written language, they treat apostrophes rather like dessert forks: unnecessary utensils that only snobs learn to use properly. Undergrads, your reckless refusal to internalise two or three simple, necessary rules is driving me completely mad. Apostrophes are not dessert forks. I wish they were steak knives so that I could intimidate you with them.

Since you, O Undergrads, should not be using contractions in formal writing,**** I shouldn't really have to explain the "omission" rule of apostrophe use, but what the hell. If you're leaving letters out of a word or yoking two words together in abbreviated form to make a single term, you replace the missing letters with an apostrophe. Cannot becomes can't and I have becomes I've. In fiction, you will often see authors adding verisimilitude to their dialogue via apostrophes, turning because into 'cause, of course into 'course, or looking into lookin'.***** Undergrads who are prone to flaunting the rules of formal writing and using contractions may also be prone to leaving the apostrophes out of those contractions. They need to realise that can't and cant are, in fact, two entirely different words. One is what you say when your sister asks you to babysit her triplets; the other is what politicians and religious leaders fling at your head for fun. You may be able to see how the apostrophe clarifies matters in this case. It is also useful when distinguishing between 'cause and cause, I'd and Id, 'course and course, she'd and shed, she'll and shell, he'll and hell, and so on. Apostrophes clarify, people. They are not dessert forks.

However, the more usual error in formal essays involves the possessive form. As I sincerely hope every schoolchild learns, 's denotes possession in English. The language is quite unusual in this regard. I know some Swedish, a language that is related to English via their shared Germanic roots; in that language, the possessive is denoted by a plain "s" without a preceding apostrophe. I believe German itself does the same thing, though like English, it also has a form roughly equivalent to "the X of the Y" ("the eyes of the dragon" instead of "the dragon's eyes"), just like French. Way back in the Middle Ages, English had the plain s possessive as well.

At any rate, yes, modern English is weird. That doesn't mean that you don't have to follow the damn rules. I am seriously doubting that the students who consistently leave apostrophes out of possessives are sitting there thinking, "The Germans do it, so why shouldn't I?"

Simple, simple rule: if you are talking about someone or something possessing something or someone, the possessor gets an apostrophe. Period. (One small note: this rule does not apply to pronouns, which are governed by their own rules. You need to learn those rules as well. I'm just saying.)

The problem is that we use that final s (without the apostrophe) to denote something else in English: the plural form. If you bother to take ten minutes to learn the difference, you are only going to mix up the two forms when your fingers are typing more quickly than your brain can handle, but a lot of people don't take those ten minutes. Thus, instead of Felicia's cats--with Felicia (possessive) owning at least two cats (plural)--we may get the abomination Felicias cat's. Just typing that made my head explode. There is absolutely no reason anyone should pluralise Felicia or turn her cats into a singular beastie that owns something unspecified. There is also absolutely no reason anyone should make this mistake when the plural form of a word differs substantially from its singular form. For instance, I have seen students writing about "the families secret" instead of "the family's secret." Ow. My brain.

Please learn this rule. It is simple. It is effective. If you know it, I shall have fewer reasons to scream and hit things.

Note of interest: the insertion of an apostrophe into a plural is prevalent enough that the error has its own name: the greengrocer's (or greengrocers') apostrophe. This name has come about because grocers are unfortunately prone to selling apple's, pear's, carrot's, and other maddeningly mangled pluralised fruit and vegetables (or, perhaps, vegetable's).

I have had students who consistently mix up the plural and possessive forms and others who use the apostrophes randomly, sometimes sticking them into possessives and sometimes into plurals. Others simply don't use apostrophes at all, ever. I realise that this error goes back hundreds of years, but I still blame the Internet.****** My dear, dear students, do you know how tired I get of typing, "Apostrophes are your friends. Please do not neglect or misuse them. Please read up on the difference between plurals and possessives"? I get almost as tired as I get of typing, "Avoid discussing authorial intent," "Please double space all university essays," "What is the significance of this observation?", and "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH." That is how bleeding tired I get.

Another source of confusion is the plural possessive and/or the possessive form of words ending in s. This issue is a controversial one, and for once, I am not going to stand up and declare that my way of approaching it is the right way, mostly because everybody disagrees so strenuously on what the rule actually is that I really don't know what is true any more.******* However, I'll eventually reveal my favourite version of the rule. I do think you need to pick a version and stick with it.

The guy over at Motivated Grammar has summarised the issue succinctly; his rant is worth a read. Basically, the debate is over how to make words ending in s possessive. Such words include singular nouns such as dress, plural nouns such as puppies, surnames such as Dickens, first names such as James, and historical first names such as Jesus. The basic rule, and the one to which I try to stick, is that singular nouns (including proper nouns) ending in s are made possessive with 's, whereas plural nouns ending in s are made possessive with ' alone. Therefore, the list above gives us the following possessives: dress's, puppies', Dickens's, James's, and Jesus's. I like this rule. It is easy to remember. However, as the Motivated Grammar guy informs us, there are several possible variations on this rule; some people advocate using the plain ' for all names, for names that would be difficult to pronounce with 's, or for ancient names such as Jesus and Moses. My personal belief is that these variations make things too freaking difficult, but I'm willing to accept them if you follow a given rule consistently. I am not willing to accept dress' as the possessive of dress. Singular non-proper nouns ending in s are subject to the same rules as singular non-proper nouns not ending in s.

However--darling undergrads--none of the variations allows for Dicken's being the possessive form of Dickens. I have even seen Mr. Dickens's name itself--neither pluralised, which would properly be Dickenses, or as a possessive--being written as Dicken's (as in, "Charles Dicken's is the author of Great Expectations"). Despite the fact that common sense would seem to indicate the SHEER UNMITIGATED FOLLY of this error, people still make it.

I realise that in order to follow these rules consistently, you will have to spend a few minutes proofreading each essay you write. My heart bleeds for you, albeit not really all that much. Remember: proofreading may be a minor inconvenience for you, but if you do it, and do it well, you will improve your markers' lives immeasurably. You have to read only your essay. Your markers have to read your essay and the essays written by all your classmates. When thirty-five students in a class of fifty do not understand how to use apostrophes, tears happen.

I am now finished the six essays I mentioned at the beginning of this document. I believe four of the six students made apostrophe errors. I am going to go sit in a corner and wail softly now. Go forth, young undergrads. Go forth and apostrophise.********

*Unless, of course, my worst enemy were a Batman plagiarist, which, to be frank, he or she probably is.
**The rest of the bridge of "The Impossible Dream" is even more appropriate here, actually.***
***Guess what I just did? I just played "The Impossible Dream" on the pennywhistle so that I wouldn't have to go back to marking. Unfortunately, now I really have to go back to marking, and my neighbours probably want to kill me.
****Even though you bloody well do.
*****Unless the author is Stephen King, at which point looking becomes lookin. We generally just let Stephen King do whatever the hell he wants.
******Plus possibly the greengrocers.
********In all senses of the word. Look it up. It's an interesting word.