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Grammar Damage

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The apostrophe CAN be your friend... with just a little information on its use

Lynne Truss, the world’s preeminent grammar grump, said it best when she wrote (in the international bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”), “To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair, but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy, and sets off a simple, Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.”

When I read that phrase, I immediately copied it into an email that I then sent to most everyone I know, saying, “See! It’s not just me!”

If you don’t mind appearing to be illiterate, or taking the risk that some small percentage of people out there will wish for your immediate death because of it, then stop reading here. Those of you who have some reason to want others to think you graduated at least the sixth grade - and who litter apostrophes throughout your writing like confetti - should read on.

The humble apostrophe, only slightly larger than the even-more humble period, conveys a wealth of information to readers who understand what it’s all about.

For example, a simple apostrophe can let your readers know that you really do know how to spell, but that you have purposely left a letter out of a word. Most people are familiar with this usage in contractions such as aren’t or doesn’t.

We have three writers here in these pages who employ the apostrophe for that purpose time and time again - I’ll leave it to you to figure out who they are. Mostly this usage is employed to add a certain colloquial flavor to their words, and in that instance its biggest role is in replacing the letter “G” at the end of a word. Thus you’ll find their work replete with words like pickin’ and grinnin’.

One of the most frequent errors I see in this usage of the apostrophe is actually the lack of it, and that occurs most frequently in the contraction of the word until. If you choose to leave off the first two letters of that word, the proper way to write it is to utilize that “missing letter apostrophe,” which then prints as ‘til. Note this is completely different from the printed word till, which as a noun refers to something money is kept in, and as a verb is an action you perform upon the land.

For a long time, apostrophes were only used to indicate missing letters, but then someone had the bright idea to also use them to indicate whether or not a word was possessive. (Truss credits this invention to printers in the 17th century.)

It’s with this usage that most people fling apostrophes around their writing as if they were Tammy Faye putting on eyeliner.

The simple rules when indicating that a word is possessive? Singular and plural nouns that don’t end in in the letter S need an apostrophe followed by an S at the end of the word (the woman’s hat); Use an apostrophe after the S in words that end with S (example: Truss’ book).

Personal interrogative and relative pronouns do NOT use an apostrophe - I repeat, do NOT use an apostrophe. This brings me to the second apostrophe misuse that makes the hair I didn’t pull out of my head turn gray - it’s.

If you write out I-T-apostrophe-S, it reads “it is.” If you’re using its in a possessive form (Its cold, gleaming eyes, for example) then there should be no apostrophe placed before the S. This is also true for ours, his, hers, yours, theirs and whose.

All apostrophe rules go out the window when it comes to an official name that includes (or should include) an apostrophe. It’s a name, not a word, so their preferred usage is what goes. If you have a Diners Club card in your wallet, for example, you’ll note they do not utilize an apostrophe in their name, even though, as a club of diners, you would expect to find one there. (As a club for diners, there would be no apostrophe, but now I’m getting into the area that makes people throw their hands up in the air and fling apostrophes everywhere.) Although it’s an anything-goes world when it comes to business names, I would encourage you to investigate proper apostrophe usage before you name your business, lest you end up going through life explaining why you spell it the way you do.

Editor’s Note: This column was suggested several years ago by Sandpoint’s Gretchen Ward, and was inspired (or so I’m told by Bill Litsinger) by “The Grammar Grouch,” a column printed in a California newspaper “back in the day.” It would be childish of you in the extreme if the mere fact that we print this article sends you running to the email or phone with glee whenever you find a mistake in our pages. Our pages and stories are all proofread several times, but mistakes can and do occur. If you see that we repeat an error often, indicating there’s something we don’t know, then by all means laugh maniacally, and give us a call.

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Landon Otis

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education, grammar

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