So, apostrophe, are you proud of yourself?

Somehow the lowly apostrophe has worked its way into thousands–no, millions–of places where it does not belong. Even my fellow professors are misusing the little paramecium of punctuation. One referred to our college’s sponsoring community as the “Sister’s of Providence.” Another wrote a Shakespeare title as “All’s Well that End’s Well.” I’m not naming names; anyone can make a mistake. It’s the frequency of errors like these that is disturbing.

Some mistakes are just typos, made in the haste of the moment. Less excusable are those apostrophic apostasies that persist, often for years. A sidewalk sign in Terre Haute reads, “Hair Cut’s $7.00,” for instance. Perhaps the barber has a haircut, and the haircut has $7.00, and perhaps you can look at those seven dollars if you go into the shop. Or, perhaps, the barber, via the sign painter, is simply and curtly answering the expected question, “How much for a haircut?”

There are a few situations involving the ubiquitous superscript that are more ambiguous. Is that decade of the past called the ’70’s or the ’70s? (“’70s” is correct.) Does one need to mind one’s ps and qs, or one’s p’s and q’s? (Or does p need to mind p’s own business? But I digress. Here, I think “p’s and q’s” is correct, since the meaning would be very unclear without the apostrophes.)

However, it is very easy to teach, learn, and self-enforce the rule that one should never use an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun. The great Dr. Mary Watrous, legendary teacher-education professor at Western Washington University, demonstrated how she would have classes repeat, after writing it on the blackboard as many times as would fit, “never, ever, ever!” She also dictated a sentence to her college class; we all wrote it down. Here it is: “The Joneses’ car ran into the Smiths’ car.” She said nobody had ever written it correctly. (Guess who has two thumbs and was the first one to get it right.)

I’m not against the apostrophe; I’m against incorrect use of the apostrophe. I’m equally against omitting an apostrophe when it’s needed. I’m pro-thinking. What does it really matter? Don’t I understand what people mean when they write “their’s” and “your’s?” Of course, I do. Again, it’s not a simple mistake that bothers me so much; it’s the implication that either the writer doesn’t care, or doesn’t have time, or (worst of all) didn’t learn these grammatical conventions.

Not caring is a huge problem, because it allows us to dilute the precision of the English language. One reason that English has become the modern lingua franca is its precision. (It can’t be its simplicity!) Thanks to Alvaro Agudelo, a thoroughly bilingual Colombian friend, for confirming this viewpoint for me.

Not having time hints at other problems. For instance, in defense of my fellow professors, it’s worth noting that few if any of us have any clerical support, and that we are consistently asked to do things without adequate time for forethought and proofreading. Thinking, it seems, is not considered productive. Nobody has time to do it right. That subject will have to wait for another blog post.

Not having learned grammatical conventions (okay, rules) incriminates both the teaching institutions and the students who didn’t manage to learn. But when the principle is as simple as “never use an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun,” there is no excuse for an adult to persist in making such mistakes. It does mean that one needs to know what a possessive pronoun is. Perhaps that’s what isn’t being taught and learned.

So many writing (and, God forbid, speaking) problems could be cured if people understood Dr. Watrous’s simple rule. Follow it, and your life will be better.

P.S. I have had problems with Apple’s Time Machine software ever since I started to use it. Apparently the problem is caused by the use of apostrophes in my device names. It figures.

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