Believe it or not, each year Sept. 24 is National Punctuation Day. Now you might think that celebrating those little and lowly dots, lines and curves is about as significant as celebrating a leaky faucet or scoring a perfect 100 on an IQ test. But correct punctuation is perhaps the most useful aid to making your writing reader-friendly.
Of all the marks of punctuation, the most off-putting is the apostrophe. In fact, this little squiggle is so off-putting that people put apostrophes off when they should be putting them on paper and often put them on when they should put them off.
A famous “New Yorker” cartoon depicts a policeman pulling over to the side of the road a truck labeled, “Me and Wallys Produce.” The cop says to the driver, “Sorry, but I’m going to have to issue you a summons for reckless grammar and driving without an apostrophe.”
Turns out that many of us are guilty of driving without an apostrophe or carrying too many of them in our sentences:
• The Midas Muffler Company once advertised, “It Pay’s to Midasize.”
• The erudite Harvard Club of Boston was crimson-faced to discover that one of its restrooms was labeled “Mens’ Room.”
• Many a marketplace displays labels that read, “Potato’s,” “Pear’s” and (gasp!) “Peach’es.” I call these gratuitous squiggles Prepostrophes.
• In a weekly swap-shop guide appeared this grisly (not grizzly or gristly) ad: “Wanted: Piano to replace daughters lost in fire.”
• An investment firm boasts, “We get our customer’s top dollar.”
One of the most daunting challenges of punctuation is to employ the apostrophe to make a noun possessive. To convert a singular noun to a possessive, simply add an apostrophe and an s: Wally’s Produce, the policeman’s badge.
Grammarians and publications differ on forming the possessive of singular words ending in sibilants — s, z, c, x. I recommend that you add the s after an apostrophe if you would pronounce that s: the boss’s daughter, Dickens’s novels, (Dickens’ novels is also acceptable) Aristophanes’ plays.
Possessive forms of personal pronouns, such as yours, hers, his and ours, do not take apostrophes. It’s used as a possessive pronoun is so ubiquitous that it has become the most common spelling/punctuation atrocity in our language. Please, please, please remember that it’s is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” It’s is not a possessive.
Which dog has the upper paw?:
a) A clever dog knows its master.
b) A clever dog knows it’s master.
It’s the second dog, of course. It knows that it is master.
For a plural word that ends with a letter other than s, form the possessive as if the word were singular: the people’s choice, the men’s room.
Now, what about words and names that are pluralized by adding s or es? Simply add an apostrophe only: the readers’ opinions, the Smiths’ dog, the foxes’ teeth.
This brings us to those names we see in front of houses and on mailboxes everywhere — “The Smith’s,” “The Gump’s,” and even (sigh) “The Jone’s.” These are distressing signs of our times. Which Smith, we ask, and who, pray tell, is Jone? Here we have an atrocity of both case and number in one felonious swoop.
Who lives in the house? The Smiths. The Gumps. The Joneses. That’s what the signs should say. It’s really nobody else’s business whether the Smiths, the Gumps and the Joneses own their domiciles. All we need know is that the Smiths, the Gumps and the Joneses live there.
If you must announce possession of your domicile, place the apostrophe after, not before, the plural names: “The Smiths’,” “The Gumps’,” “The Joneses’.” Your attention to this matter will help stanch the creep of apostrophe catastrophes across our land.
Please send your questions and comments about language to firstname.lastname@example.org