Apostrophe abuse

Warning: this page contains language that may offend some people. Brace yourself for obscenities.

I’m talking about punctuation. In particular, offensive apostrophes. You know the ones. They often show up on grocery signboards with chalked messages that advertise cheap vege’s.

Ouch. That rogue apostrophe really hurts. “Vege’s.” Urgh. If you are a lifetime member of the self-appointed apostrophe police, as I am, you will know why vege’s is so offensive.

Even worse: “$2 bag’s of carrot’s”. (Oh, the pain.)

Hot chip’s. (Please, make it stop.)

I acknowledge that those of us who care passionately about apostrophes can be a bit pedantic at times. We really can’t help ourselves. It’s a serious affliction.

Apostrophe abuse shocks us like a bee sting. It wounds like a lover’s betrayal. When we see apostrophe errors we absolutely must fix them, or at least point them out.

Incorrect apostrophes are the wonky eyelashes we are unable to ignore on other people’s faces. We consider it our prime responsibility, our divine mandate, to wrench the world back into its grammatically correct groove.

Wrong apostrophes must be put right. I have been known to correct café blackboards.

Or perhaps we apostrophe police should just get over ourselves? After all, people understand each other fine thank you very much, even as innocent apostrophes are being tormented in broad daylight.

This is a very humbling truth. Most apostrophes that go wrong don’t actually make much difference to anything.

I shudder to say this. Are apostrophes really as important as we like to think they are? Some are useful but a lot of them are plain annoying. Is it Kings Landing or King’s Landing or Kings’ Landing? And who really cares? I have some empathy for those city councils in Britain that have tried to ban apostrophes from street signs.

And yet in my heart I remain a purist. The apostrophe is a tool worth protecting. It gives the written word context and nuance. Consider this famous sentence from novelist Kingsley Amis, offered up as a compelling reason to use apostrophes: “Those things over there are my husbands.”

It’s not all that hard to use apostrophes properly. Take plurals, they don’t need apostrophes at all. If you’re writing about more than one banana, all you need is to add an S to the banana and be done with it.

Bananas. See? No apostrophe. Easy.

The same goes for veges and chips and carrots and bicycles. You don’t need an apostrophe to show that there’s more than one thing. Please, let’s have no more possessive carrots.

It’s that pesky possessive that really ties people in knots. Is it the boss’s offices or the bosses offices or the bosses’ offices? This is where we freak out and start to fling punctuation all over the place in manic self defence.

If you are a nervous apostrophe user, try viewing the apostrophe as a helpful little name badge. It is there to tell you who the owner of something is.

First, spell the owner’s name completely and correctly. Then pin the badge at the end of their name. The bag belongs to Betty? It’s Betty’s bag. The offices belong to the boss? They’re the boss’s offices.

If there’s more than one boss just follow the same process. Make sure you spell bosses correctly then stick the name badge at the end: the bosses’ offices.

Yes, it can get convoluted and mess with your head. But I think it’s worth at least a little bit of effort. This is our written language after all. Let’s use it properly. Long live the mighty apostrophe.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 24 October 2014. Reproduced with permission.