07/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011


So what is it about the apostrophe? How come so few people know how to use it? And why do I get so irritated by its misuse?

The rules are pretty simple. Rule number 1: "Its" is "it's" when there's an "i" missing, that is, when it means "it is", NOT when it's simply a possessive, as in "the cat lost its virginity" or "my computer needs its screen cleaned." It's = it is. Easy, no? By the same token, there's = there is, as in "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup." And then there's "Who's coming to dinner?" (Not, please, "whose"!) Or, "Where's my umbrella?" Or "Here's a lovely gift for you." In each case, it's the missing "i" in "is." An apostrophe can also substitute for other missing letters, of course, as in li'l' Abner or young 'uns. (actually, that should logically be 'nes, no? But who says the rules of logic apply to the rules of grammar?) Or, "I'm so happy to see you. Aren't we lucky to know each other? Don't you just love this muggy weather?" Etcetera.

Rule number two: possessives. With a plural noun, the apostrophe goes behind the "s"; if it's a singular noun, the apostrophe goes before the "s". Thus, "It's my dog's birthday today," or "It's a dog's life." One dog. But, "I forgot to bring the dogs' leashes"--two or more dogs. ("My mother's in the loo" is obviously rule number 1, above, unless it becomes "My mother's friend is in the loo.") So if you ask yourself, is this noun singular or is it plural?, and act accordingly, you're going to get it right. Usually. I imagine that someone will point out some ridiculously obtuse exception.

(While I'm at it, I might as well mention the disgracefully misused "fewer" and "less". It's a bit like with the apostrophe. "Fewer" goes with plural nouns; "less" with singular ones. Thus, "There is less sugar in this jar than in the other;" but "There are fewer grains of sugar in this jar..." Why can't people get this right?)

The more significant question, of course, is why I should allow such things to irritate me. Language evolves. It's the commonly made mistakes that determine the way it changes. Those darn Gauls could not speak proper Latin to save their lives, so they turned it into French. It took a while, but it was improper use and bad pronunciation that brought about the change. Besides, who needs apostrophes, really? They should probably accompany the copper penny into long overdue extinction. And no one but me gives a damn about "less" and "fewer." They could care... well, less.

So why? I guess a part of it is that I love the English language, and hate to see it being abused. It's such a wonderful instrument, so precise when needed, so beautiful, so poetic, so amazingly flexible and subtle, so rich with potential meanings, so infinitely utile. It's also easy to abuse, for anyone who does not care enough to use it well--for those who think it's no more than a tool to convey broad swaths of meaning in the crassest possible way. They forget that the slip of a tongue or the change of tone or emphasis can turn what's intended as a compliment into offense. They forget that words carry more than simple meanings: they carry emotional values, too, and physical heft. Words, and the way they're said, matter more than people think they do--until they discover, as they sometimes do, that something has gone seriously amiss in their communications. (My father learned this once when insisting on showing off his wildly inadequate schoolboy French: having ordered three coffees for the family at a Brussels cafe, he next asked the waitress for the toilet, pronouncing it "twa-ley." When we assembled at the table for our coffee, we found instead three cups of milk awaiting us, "trois laits;" my father should, of course, have asked for the "twa-lette.")

I know that language changes. I acknowledge that it must. But it pains me to hear how it's mutilated on the streets, just as it pains me when I see that misplaced apostrophe. There must be some part of me--there IS, I confess, some part of me--that loves the rules. I was too old, by the 1960s, to learn to "question authority"--remember that one?--in that easy, dismissive way that seems to have become a part of our culture. When I question authority, as I actually do quite often, it comes only after an inner struggle with the inculcated habit of respecting and obeying it. (To do otherwise, at an English boarding school, was to risk exposing one's rear end to a painful encounter with the cane--or to some other, equally unappealing punishment. At home, little children did what they were told. Rules, my father used to say redundantly, are rules.)

And then of course there's that other part of me that hates them, and distrusts whoever is handing them out. The creative part of me, I think, puts both the love and the hate to use. Any poet knows that rules are fun to work with. It's in the tension between their observation and their breach that good things happen, that new ideas are born, new forms invented--between freedom and discipline, the creative imagination and plodding orthodoxy. I'm sure it must be the same with science, indeed with any other intellectual discipline.

So it is with both skepticism and a certain fondness that I watch my pedantry when it comes to apostrophes and grammatical lapses. I freely admit that I have my own--lapses, that is. Some pedant like me will be searching this entry for the cracks in my proverbial glass house. Good luck. But I will doubtless continue to wish that people would just speak and write proper, for gods sake, with less mistakes in there (theirs' another one, damn and blast it--don't get me started!) daily acts of casual mutilation.