I read the other day in the National Post that John Richards is ending the life of the Apostrophe Protection Society’s website. As I’m (“I am”) sure’s (“sure is”) true of many people, I had no idea this society existed. But I wish I had known. The use of the apostrophe seems to be one of those things that just don’t (“do not”) matter anymore. (Mr. Richards is considering dedicating his time to the proper use of the comma. I’m (“I am”) wondering whether he’d (“he would”) put a comma after “matter” in the preceding sentence.)
Also like many people, as it turns out, I decided to check out the Society’s website, only to find it suspended (substitute “find it’s [it has] been suspended”) for “find it suspended”), reduced to the following message:
The Apostrophe Protection Society
3rd December 2019 valid until 31st December 2019
John Richards has announced the he is closing the Apostophe Protection Society.
Since the announcement, this site has had a 600-fold increase in traffic, which is proving expensive. So we have decided to close it until the New Year.
When it returns, Webmaster John Hale intends to keep the site running for a few more years.
Sorry, and thank you for your interest.
We will be back soon!
How many of us will rush back to the Society’s website in the new year: my guess is not many, it’s (it is) the sort of thing we have to be reminded of (if I hadn’t [had not] added this bit, I would’ve [you know what I might’ve put here, right?] ended the sentence with a preposition, something I’m sure would have rightly agitated Mr. Richardson). (With this detour to prepositional use, I feel compelled to cite Winston Churchill’s witty put-down of a bureaucrat’s efforts to avoid ending sentences with a preposition, an effort that can seem very burdensome: “This is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put!” [Thank you to Paul Russell in the National Post who was in turn citing Seymour Hamilton.])
There are several specific aspects of apostrophe use or non-use, whichever applies, that particularly irk me. One is mixing up “it’s” (the contraction of it is) and “its” (the possessive). At first you’d see this annoyance from time to time, but by the time I was seeing it in the national newspapers, I figured it was the end more or less and I started blaming autocorrect (maybe the person who developed the algorithm for spelling couldn’t use “it’s” [it is] and “its” (very nice on as it is) correctly. Or maybe it’s (it is) not the result of an algorithm at all, I really have no idea.
The second incorrect use of the apostrophe is when it is used in signage when it shouldn’t be and when it isn’t used where it should be. The National Post article about the end of the Society — or maybe it’s not the end, after all, we’ll see — was illustrated by the Tim Hortons sign, which doesn’t use an apostrophe. Of course, at one time Tim Horton owned Tim Horton’s, it belonged to him (who owns that donut shop? I think it’s Tim Horton’s). In this case, it may be that while the heritage aspect of the name is lost, it actually is more correct as it is now, since it now owned by an international restaurant conglomerate. Fun fact: it was once owned by Wendy’s, which still uses an apostrophe.
Street names often have an apostrophe because they start as a track to someone’s property. For example, Brown’s Line, near where I live, links Lakeshore Boulevard to Highway 427. It sometimes appears as “Brown’s Line” and sometimes as “Browns Line”. Curious about its (possessive) origin, I checked Google (here is a different issue: as with Xerox, Google has become so prevalent that one now sees it spelled “google” or “Google”, regardless of whether it is used as a noun or a verb). Back to Brown’s Line: it seems that Joseph Brown was the first permanent settler in the area, owning a farm reached by a dirt track called, you guessed it, “Brown’s Line” (the “line” belonging to Brown) and the name continues to apply to the busy and longer street (see here). You often see “Brown’s Line”, but you also see “Browns Line”, the latter appearing on the highway directional sign.
Indeed, one sees whole towns caught up in the apostrophe quandry. I came across a story about Bright’s (or Brights) Cove in southwest Ontario. Both versions appear in different places and according to the story, there are strong feelings among the townspeople about which is correct.
One sees quite a few homemade signs that use apostrophes incorrectly and it seem churlish to be critical of those, but professional and expensive signs are another matter. Still, if the person or business that arranged for the sign doesn’t care, who else will? Perhaps there are others grumbling as they point these professional signs out, but I confess that I’ve never heard anyone, although it might be that my own exasperated sighs (my own cavils as some would have it – that’s [that is] “cavils”, not “cavil’s”) might have drowned them out as I passed.
The National Post’s (not “National Posts”) article contains some examples of incorrect apostrophe usage that the Society’s website identifies (I’m guessing it still does, we just can’t see them right now). “Fans” of the website have submitted these: “a café advertising ‘light bite’s,’ a warehouse offering storage for ‘boat’s’ and ‘car’s,’ and a restaurant selling ‘snow pea’s’. It’s true that usually we know what is meant, whether there is an apostrophe or not and I’m sure most people would think it very technical if a reader of the warehouse sign asks, “boat what?” or “car what” – what part or attribute of boats and cars will this warehouse store?
A few years ago, Robert Fulford wrote a lovely column on the apostrophe in the National Post (interestingly included in the Entertainment section [I believe my capitalization is correct here, but perhaps not) in which he referenced Mr. Richardson. He mentions that some individuals “who go about armed with thick-nibbed pens and markers so that they can correct advertising signs that contain the most widespread apostrophe errors, the culture-eroding, literacy-destroying blunders” that are quite common. I rather liked his allusion to “a cartoon in which a weeping young woman says, ‘I was willing to overlook his comma abuse but when he started misplacing his apostrophes, I knew it was over.'”
Another column reminds us about “Mother’s Day”, which, as the column suggests, should refer to all mothers. It should, but another way of looking at it might have been that it is a day to celebrate one’s own mother (“My mother’s day”). Of course, if this was ever the case, it certainly doesn’t wash now when it is quite common to have more than one mother.
Russell Smith in a column in The Globe and Mail now eight years old (oh, dear, apostophe on years or not?) writes about the complexity of apostrophic use based on the Globe‘s style guide. I was surprised at his description of the use of the mark with proper names ending in “s”; he explains the Globe‘s approach, as well as his own “vague” memory, that it depends on whether the name was one syllable or more. My own memory is that is depends on whether the name ends in a soft “s” or hard “s” or “z”, although I’ve never found that rule easy to apply, so that I’m relieved I might be wrong. (It is worth noting that Russell’s column has a little caveat note indicating that the information in it (probably about the Globe‘s style guide, as Russell refers to it – or should it really be Globe style guide”, Globe being descriptive?) is eight years old (no use of an apostrophe on “years”) and may no longer be “current”. On this point, see How to Use Apostrophes by Scribendi, which makes the whole thing seem complicated indeed! (As is too often the case, one refers to online sources without knowing whether they’re authoritative, but it certainly seems as if it is.)
Enough on what appears to be a losing tussle (saying how I feel as gently as I can) arising from the incorrect use of apostrophes (no ‘, just a simple plural). There are other struggles to undertake, such as the dangling modifier or participle, something Marcus Gee says is “driving him up the wall”. Me too. It usually doesn’t take much to get it right: a quick review of the sentence tells the writer whether the person or object in the modifier is the subject of the main part of the sentence. But as Gee vividly writes,
Using [the dangling modifier] doesn’t just violate some musty grammatical decree. It obscures the writer’s meaning and leaves the hapless reader confused. If good prose is like a windowpane, the dangling modifier fogs the glass.
So many grammatical issue to consider: when “I” or “me” or “who” or “whom” is (singular because of the use of “or”) correct are just two examples. Of course, we tend to be more lackadaisical when speaking and being grammatically precise in ordinary conversation does often sound stilted. So much writing today is more like speaking and takes on that informal tone; that has seeped into newspapers and other more formal writing, it seems.
Inevitably, people who learn English as a second language may well be concerned about the proper use of English grammar, but they also may focus primarily on conversation. When I spent time trying to learn French in a sustained way, I found refuge in grammar, including some of the more difficult French constructions. But I had much greater difficulty with conversational French, partly because I found spoken French hard to understand (having what is best described as a “tin ear”) and because I was so determined to speak correctly. The result: I hardly spoke at all and never really achieved the level I might have done had I given myself a break.
We all know and acknowledge that language evolves; we know English is different in different countries, despite being a first language , or within a single country. We know spellings change. We are aware English has become more simplified, as anyone who might have read or listened to a play by Shakespeare certainly knows. Yet as we veer more and more towards the colloquial and the easier way of writing (short sentences with a single thought, for example), we also lose some of the pleasure of language. At least some of us think so. Robert Fulford quotes David McNamea, who wrote, “I have always admired the apostrophe. It floats anarchically above the rigid baseline that most other characters limp along. It looks cute too.” As Mr. Richardson says, “To do without [the apostrophe] would be confusing, as well as inelegant.” Yes, language must be functional, but how wonderful to also maintain its beauty and variety.