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Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble

Newsflash: apostrophes are not optional. If they ever become so, the writer-reader relationship will be one step closer to dysfunctional. Still, many casual scribblers would rather not be bothered.

Apostrophes are a lot easier for those who slow down and do what it takes to get them right. For instance, to show possession with singular nouns that don’t end in s, all you have to do is add ’s (girl’s, farm’s, love’s). Most people can handle that. Admittedly, trouble arises with certain other kinds of nouns. We will deal with some of those problems in weeks to come.

Today we’ll examine singular nouns that end in s, with lens, cactus, and series as examples. Such words can become confusing when they are made plural, then made possessive.

To form the singular possessive form of a word like lens, just add ’s: the lens’s reflection. But how about more than one lens’s reflection? The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe. You can’t go wrong if you take this in two steps. First write the plural, lenses. Then add an apostrophe … and there you are: the lenses’ reflection.

It’s different with cactus, because the plural is cacti. The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun not ending in s, add ’s. So, depending on your meaning, you would write either the cactus’s spines for one cactus* or the cacti’s spines for two or more cacti.

Now consider series, which is the same word whether singular or plural. If a scientist has conducted a sequence of lab experiments, we would write about the series’s outcome. Because we mean one series, we add ’s, just as we would do with any singular noun.*

But what if the scientist then ran another cycle of tests and compared it to the first? Then we’d be reporting on the two series’ results. Because we mean more than one series, we add only an apostrophe to series, just as we would do with any plural noun ending in s.

*Note: Although we endorse an ’s for all possessive singular nouns ending in s, not everyone agrees. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe: the bus’ route, my boss’ orders.

Then there’s the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally backs the ’s but prescribes only an apostrophe when the word that follows begins with an s. This means that the Associated Press would recommend the cactus’s needles, but also the cactus’ spines because of the first s in spines.

Does that seem odd to you, too?

 

Pop Quiz

1. That specie’s/species’/species’s status was changed to endangered.

2. McDermott is the people’s/peoples’ choice.

3. Those company’s/companies’/companie’s profits are way up.

4. Her many dress’s/dress’/dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. That species’s status was changed to endangered. (but some would endorse species’)

2. McDermott is the people’s choice.

3. Those companies’ profits are way up.

4. Her many dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

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Posted on Sunday, May 4, 2014, at 9:59 pm


The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm


Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm


Revised and Expanded Blue Book Coming Next Month

The eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is set for a February debut. It has been six years since the tenth edition was published. So when the publisher, Jossey-Bass, requested another go-round, the team at GrammarBook.com was elated.

We trust that readers will find the new, extensively revised and expanded version in keeping with the author and founder Jane Straus’s vision of a direct, concise, unfussy grammar book.

The Blue Book, which started life as a booklet for California state employees, has now sold around 200,000 copies. Over the years, we’ve seen the number of subscribers to our weekly blog grow from dozens to scores to hundreds; now, there are almost 40,000 of you worldwide.

As we have grown, we have heard from readers from every walk of life and all corners of the earth. Some of you have been outspoken about things we could be doing better—and we are listening. We can’t forget an e-mail we received from a group of amateur linguists in England who felt we were too quick to label as “rules” what might better be termed conventions. One example of this distinction: although American writers and editors insist upon the placing of commas and periods inside quotation marks without exception, it nonetheless smacks of provincial pomposity to call this a “rule” of English when virtually every other English-speaking country ignores it.

So, with a nod to that shrewd e-mail, the new edition stresses the difference between rules on the one hand and conventions, customs, and tendencies on the other. For instance, there are ironclad rules for apostrophes—nowhere will you see the possessive of women written womens’. But other uses of the apostrophe are open for debate. Some write Learn your ABCs and others prefer your ABC’s. Some write the 1990s and others swear by the 1990’s.

The new Blue Book takes on English in all its often maddening complexity, acknowledging its quirks, gray areas, exceptions, limitations, and contradictions. We realize that people want straight answers, but with English, there sometimes aren’t any, and we would be remiss in saying otherwise.
 

Order the new edition of The Blue Book through Wiley.com and get 30 percent off and FREE shipping. Simply go to bit.ly/1996hkA and use discount code E9X4AYY.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014, at 2:23 pm


Media Watch 1

Several weeks ago, a Vatican-endorsed medal honoring Pope Francis had to be recalled because Jesus was spelled “Lesus.” Just last week, a political placard at a Washington, D.C., press conference spelled filibuster “fillibuster” and against “againts.” In light of these disgraces, it seems the right time to reopen our Media Malfeasance file…

• “They have arrested two suspects, neither of whom are British.” This decades-old problem is only getting worse. To journalists it may concern: The pronoun neither, like either and each, is always singular. Make it “neither of whom is British.”

• “Prop. 32 is an initiative to curb union’s influence.” Ah, apostrophes. Note that one could also say “to curb the influence of unions”—that’s unions, plural. Plural nouns ending in s show possession with the apostrophe after the s, not before. So make it “curb unions’ influence.”

• “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Looks all right, you say? The problem is the unnecessary question mark. “Guess” is an imperative—a direct order, not the first word in a question.

• “Rebecca Solnit’s book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” Remove the commas. This is slipshod editing. With the commas, the sentence means that Unfathomable City is the only book Solnit has ever written. In fact, she has written over a dozen.

The rule is that commas set off nonessential information. If the author has written only one book, its title is not essential to the sentence: “Rebecca Solnit’s [only] book, Unfathomable City, was celebrated last week.” But since she has written several, we must be told which book directly—no commas. Similarly, The actor, Robert De Niro, was there is incorrect with commas. But The president of the United States, Barack Obama, was there is correct.

As writers’ skills decline, so do readers’ standards. The acerbic avant-garde musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once described a rock ’n’ roll magazine as “written by people who can’t write for people who can’t read.” Were he alive today, Zappa might not limit his assessment to rock-music journalism.

 

Pop Quiz

See if you can spot the flaws in these actual quotations from the media.

1. “…shot himself with a riffle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crisis?”

3. “It does so many other things that drives up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking badly.”

5. “Dow closes at new record high.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “…shot himself with a rifle.”

2. “Is it fair to compare the two crises?”

3. “It does so many other things that drive up the cost.”

4. “Everyone has come out looking bad.”

5. “Dow closes at record high.” (“new record” is a redundancy)

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Posted on Monday, November 25, 2013, at 1:36 pm