Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pet Peeve: Apostrophes

This poster costs twenty dollars. It is sold on a website called The Oatmeal, which sells many other helpful posters of this kind (some are rather vulgar, others are not). If I had all the money in the world, The Oatmeal would be rich, because I would buy this poster for every single English speaking person in the world, frame each one, deliver it to each individual home myself, and hang it up somewhere where the members of the household could see it daily.

The reason I would do this is because the poster calmly and patiently explains all the things that an English speaker/writer needs to know to be able to be understood, whereas if I were to try to explain it, I would be beating the person who didn’t pay attention in class in eleventh grade over the head.

This frustrates me a lot because it’s hard to understand someone who doesn’t know how to properly use an apostrophe. And if I try to correct them (especially if the interaction happens on the internet), I end up looking like a jerk. It turns out there’s no nice way to say, “You’re making yourself look like an idiot!" (Even when you're trying to blog about it later!)

I can’t keep myself from looking like a Grammar Nazi, even when I’m only trying to be helpful; and I understand that typos occur and that sometimes our hands go on autopilot and we don’t triplecheck what we’re typing. But it just grates on my nerves when someone consistently uses “your” when they really mean “you’re.” 

Plural means more than one. “Two kittens.” How many? More than one? Don’t use an apostrophe. In the first exception, I think that the first example sentence is too confusing. In that situation, I would use the second example: “There are two “t”s in ‘kittens.’"

In the second exception, the reason that “‘90s” is plural is because we are talking about the entire decade, which is more than one year, and that means that you don’t use an apostrophe. And since you’re not saying “1990s,” and instead want to abbreviate it to leave the “19” off, you use an apostrophe: “‘90s."

If you were talking about the temperature being somewhere from 90 to 99 degrees, you would not use an apostrophe, because at that point it would just be plural.

Possession means to own something. Bob owns the hat, so you use an apostrophe when talking about it: “Bob’s hat.” When it comes to soldiers and lightning pants, there are many soldiers, and their many rifles. If you placed the apostrophe after “soldier,” it would just be talking about one soldier’s gun. Whomever decided the rules on apostrophes apparently thought “soldiers’s” would look silly, and so mandated that the extra “s” should be omitted. But then: oh no! Words that are already plural don’t look silly when you make them possessive, so “children’s shoe store” is correct: the shoe store belongs to all the children.

Consistency seems to be the key in anything. If you’re wrong, at least you’re consistently wrong, and if someone isn’t looking too closely, they might miss that fact altogether because you haven’t contradicted yourself. Maybe this is what those who always type “your” for “you’re” are hoping for. In the “rocketship” example, I would personally be consistent with the second example: “Charles’ cat is always terrified during liftoff,” because of the previously mentioned “an extra “s” looks silly” rule. 

This is another plural and possessive “the extra “s” is silly,” which is yet another reason I would say “Charles’ cat” instead of “Charles’s cat.” The only problem comes when the possessive and plural name ends in an “s.” What do you do when you’re not talking about The Johnsons anymore but now the family of the poet John Keats? And their cat? “The Keatses” or “The Keats”? “The Keats’s cat” or “The Keatses’ cat”? Good thing he died before he got married, because writing about his children would have been a grammar nightmare.

Contractions are very helpful, but sometimes it seems like they muck everything up. “Your awesome, dude!” What about his awesome? He has awesome, or he is awesome? Even though most people, after a second look, understand the meaning, the person still seems a little dim. The thing that gets me is that it should not be hard to differentiate between things that are possessive and things that are contractions. Maybe what should happen is that when we write, we should not use contractions. At that point, no one would be confused about whether you are talking about something that belongs to someone or whether you are shoving the noun and verb into one word.

How many words should be allowed to be squished into one? And where are the rules on that? It’s okay to say, “would not’ve” or “wouldn’t have,” so why not “wouldn’t’ve?” Also, it’s okay to say, “they’re not” or “they aren’t” and “I’m not,” but not “I amn’t.” (I used to say “amn’t” when I was little and hadn’t yet learned the rules of contractions. My mother thought it was adorable.)

Now I will attempt to wade through the ridiculousness that is homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same when spoken but are spelled differently and mean different things. For example: it’s and its; they’re, their, and there; you’re and your.

Are you trying to say, “they are,” “you are,” or “it is”? This falls under the rules of contractions; use an apostrophe. Or, if you really want to make sure that you are understood, write out both words. “Dude, you are awesome” will never be taken as anything other than a compliment.

Does whatever you are talking about belong to someone/thing? When using a proper noun (“Bob”), you need to use an apostrophe, as discussed earlier (“Bob’s hat”). But when using a pronoun, the rules are different. We have different words for possessive pronouns. If the thing you are talking about belongs to the person you are talking to, the word to use is “your:” “your velociraptor.” But if the thing you are talking about belongs to a group of people that you are talking about, the word to use is “their:” “their velociraptor."

Unfortunately, English does not have a word or verb conjugation to cover a group of people that you are talking to. Spanish does: “ustedes.” The closest we come in English is in the southern United States: “y’all.” (Which, in case you didn’t know, is a contraction meaning “you all.”) So if the thing you are talking about belongs to the group of people that you are talking to, the word to use is, again, “your."

Possessive pronouns do not like apostrophes.

As for “there,” it is a place: “over there.” Or can be used to comfort someone: “there, there.” On second thought, just look it up on wiktionary.

This poster about apostrophes is just one of The Oatmeal’s fine creations regarding the best way to use grammar and punctuation. I also recommend their poster on How to Use a Semicolon, the list of Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling (featuring homophones), When to Use "i.e." in a Sentence, and even What it Means When You Say, "Literally". Even better, when you buy all five of these together in The Oatmeal Grammar Pack, you will pay just $40 instead of twenty bucks apiece.

So if you enjoy silly posters and the occasional grammar help, these posters are for you. And they’re for me, too, something to go and sigh at whenever I feel like posting a link to it would be too much of a jerk move when I see someone using “your” instead of “you’re.”

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