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Arianna's Grammar Pet Peeve: The Apostrophe Crisis

Posted: 08/06/10 09:30 AM ET

This blog was originally published on December 20, 2005

It's Day Three of my South Pacific vacation, and I'm still obsessing. But now it's not about matters of war and peace, civil liberties, and the sorry state of the mainstream media -- it's about the growing misuse of that puny piece of punctuation called the apostrophe.

Okay, I know you're thinking that the Pacific air has got to me and, instead of gaining perspective, I'm losing it. But hear me out. The phenomenon is spreading so rapidly, it's practically, well, an apostrodemic.

You see the grammatical gaffe everywhere: on billboards, in movie ads, in grocery stores, on restaurant menus -- even in the hallowed (do we still call them hallowed?) pages of the New York Times. In just the last few weeks, the "paper of record" has featured headlines that read: "New Dispute in Technology for Next Generation of DVD's," "When C.E.O.'s Are Entangled In Their Own Web of Words," and "Fast Withdrawal of G.I.'s Is Urged By Key Democrat." After seeing this last one, I couldn't help wondering: the fast withdrawal of the G.I.'s what? His division? His paycheck? His tonsils? As for that C.E.O.: Why "Are Entangled?" Why not "Is Entangled"? And if there were, in fact, more than one entangled corporate executive, why not say C.E.O.s? Why tag a gratuitous apostrophe on the execs?

And it's not just the Times. Even here on the HuffPost, Marty Kaplan, one of my favorite bloggers, recently had a post headlined "Corruption Do's & Don'ts." Ouch.

Now I really hate to make such a big stink about a little squiggle -- especially at a time when Iraq continues to spin out of control, and the death toll mounts. But sometimes a small thing like this can have much bigger ramifications.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of the broken-windows theory of crime fighting, which holds that by fighting small quality-of-life crimes like graffiti and vandalism, police send a persuasive message that anti-social behavior, of any scale, will not be tolerated. In this case, putting an end to the chronic misplacement of apostrophes could eventually lead to a better-educated populace, a greater sense of harmony and order, more fuel efficient cars, a slimmer-trimmer you, cleaner air, an end to the heartbreak of psoriasis, and, who knows, maybe even world peace.

Okay. Putting an end to the scourge of punctuation abuse won't actually lead to any of those things. But it will lower my blood pressure and that of a few million other grammar scolds across the English-speaking world.

My long-simmering irritation over the apostrophe crisis actually erupted into full-on rage a couple of years ago while helping my now-14-year-old daughter with her homework. She had written a short essay about her school camping trip (I don't remember going on camping trips when I was in school, do you? I was lucky if my teachers let us stop memorizing Aristotle long enough to play a little Greek hopscotch now and then. But that's a rant for another blog). She had particularly enjoyed tackling one of those confidence-building ropes courses. Only she had written it as "rope's courses." An understandable mistake for a pre-teen. And don't bother clicking on comments to tell me about sentence fragments. You pick your grammar neurosis and I'll pick mine.

I gently brought the error to her attention, pointing out that she didn't need an apostrophe before the "s" since it was a plural noun.

Apparently the "rope's course" had made her a bit too confident. She didn't take it very well. "You're wrong, Mommy!" she cried. Even when I insisted that I wasn't, she remained unmoved. Then she played her trump card: "Well," she sniffed, "this is the way everyone does it here." And by "here," she didn't just mean her school. She meant her country. That hurt, carrying as it did the implication that my attachment to following quaint rules of grammar and punctuation was due to English not being my mother tongue. Brushing this aside, I started to trot out that venerable parental riposte, "Just because everyone is doing it doesn't make it right." But, finally, in the interest of family peace, I decided to quash my dissent and let her teacher deal with the matter. That's what they get the not-so-big bucks for, right?

Unfortunately, when Isabella got her paper back, the errant apostrophe had been allowed to go uncorrected. Her "see, I told you so" grin left me feeling like a chastised schoolgirl -- or the last horse-and-buggy driver in town. I had let one broken window go unfixed, and the looting was already starting.

And my frustration has only continued to grow over the ensuing years. A couple of Sundays back, I came across a column on Bob Woodward by one of my journalistic heroes, Frank Rich, which was a textbook case of apostrophe inconsistency. It was titled "All the President's Flacks" (so far so good). The column was replete with properly positioned apostrophes, including this multi-apostrophized sentence: "And his books did contain valuable news: of the Wolfowitz axis' early push to take on Iraq, of the president's messianic view of himself as God's chosen warrior, of the Powell-Rumsfeld conflicts that led to the war's catastrophic execution."

But then came not one but two mentions of "Saddam's W.M.D.'s." First of all, W.M.D. stands for "weapons of mass destruction." Weapons, plural -- so there's no need for the "s" at the end. And certainly no need for the apostrophe. Saddam possessed the weapons (okay, he actually didn't, but grammatically, in this sentence, he did)... but what do the W.M.D. possess? Nothing, right? So why the superfluous punctuation?

Flummoxed, I got a hold of "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage" and, to my horror, discovered that the paper's rash of apostrophe errors had not been the result of sloppy copy editing but a conscious executive decision to ignore the rules of proper punctuation.

That's when I decided to do something to stop the madness. It's time for regime change in apostrophe land. The good news is that vanquishing this enemy won't take congressional approval, a U.N. Security Council resolution, or the use of waterboarding.

But neither can it be accomplished just by deploying a few unmanned apostrophe drones. No, this will require a coalition of journalists, copy editors, ad execs, teachers, and people like you and me willing to draw a line (albeit a small, crescent-shaped one) in the compositional sand. To say, "This will not stand." And, fortunately, we already have the Associated Press and major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post on our side.

It's really not that complicated. To make a word plural, you simply add an "s" (ropes). To make the word possessive, you add an apostrophe and an "s" (rope's). To make a plural noun ending in "s" possessive, add only the apostrophe (ropes', states' rights, the girls' toys, etc.). Of course, apostrophes are also used for contractions like can't, he's, won't, and it's.

My biggest beef, though, is with the erroneous use of apostrophes to pluralize acronyms and abbreviations like CEOs, GIs, and CDs. The rule is: If there is more than one CEO it's "CEOs" -- no apostrophe. If an individual CEO possesses something -- and you can bet the farm he does -- it's "CEO's," as in "the CEO's $125 million dollar yacht, paid for by company shareholders." And if those execs jointly possess something, then it would be CEOs', as in "the targeted CEOs' lushly appointed offices were raided by SEC investigators at roughly the same time."

Okay students, class dismissed. And leave those apples -- or, more likely, brickbats -- in the comments section.

 
 
 

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