HUNT COLUMN: Return of the grammar police

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, August 17, 2022

By Cathy Hunt
School Board Chairwoman

After my first “Grammar Police” article was published a few months back, several people (like-minded pedants, no doubt) requested more. Of course I am happy to oblige. Now seems like a perfect time to tackle some more of my peeves, what with school starting back. This time of year my fingers itch to buy a supply of fabulous red pens. Since there is really no need of that any more, an occasional newspaper column lecture will have to soothe that itch.

Today I will lament society’s lack of mastery of that delightful punctuation mark, the apostrophe. Though grammar books may present an entire chapter of apostrophe rules, my space here is limited, so I will focus on some of the lapses that annoy me most.

“Apostrophes are our friends!” I wrote that exclamation on many a student essay. Strict grammarians might emphasize that there is no place for a contraction in a formal essay anyway, but a possessive could certainly show up. Contractions and possessives: the two big reasons for using apostrophes.

Contractions are really fairly easy to grasp. The main thing to remember is that an apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter or letters. In the South, we love the contraction y’all, where the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters o and u: you all. But I see so many people spell it ya’ll. Uh-uh. In the word o’clock, the original, old-fashioned phrase was “of the clock,” so you see what letters are missing. I’ll (I will) wrap up this part of the discussion by harping on the apostrophe error that drives me the craziest: when someone writes “your” instead of “you’re.” This is not a difficult concept. If what you are really saying is “you are,” then use the latter. It’s (it is) not “your wrong” or “your invited.” I actually received a specially printed invitation with that last error on it. I probably boycotted the event.

Admittedly, the rules on showing possession can get a little murky. Is the boat Ulysses’s or Ulysses’? Spell check just told me that it likes the second one. However, the first is not technically wrong. We could really go down a rabbit hole here, so let me zero in on something that truly makes me nuts — when people put an apostrophe in a word that is not possessive but is merely plural. In my sentence “Apostrophes are our friends,” please don’t put an apostrophe in either of those nouns. There are no missing letters and there is no possession. The student’s are driving their car’s to the breakfast meeting’s. No, no, and no. Spell check just jumped all over me. Bravo, spell check!

Here’s (here is) a little trivia for you. The great British playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose life spanned the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, regarded the apostrophe as a useless mark. Indeed, if you read his texts as originally published, you will see that he practiced what he preached. Apostrophes are missing, and there really is no confusion for the reader.

But, alas, his style did not catch on, and a century later we cling to the old rules, which too often we don’t know and therefore are likely to break. Since we’re (we are) stuck with them, let’s (let us) try a little harder to make them our friends (but not our friend’s)!