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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Apostrophe to a Sign: From the Editor’s Desk…

Broers' new signAn editor’s job is pure drudgery, in part, I guess, because writing involves an uncommon amount of editing in order to arrive at where you want. The fact the writing is your own only increases the boredom, and just for that very reason even more care must go into the scissor work—the cutting and pasting—required to tweak the post into some semblance of perfection. After all, you can’t be “peddling” Gladys around the Valley as I was doing in a prior post. Think of the possible ways that statement might be misconstrued, especially if a new reader to The Ripple didn’t know Gladys was my vintage 1976 Columbia lady’s bicycle. Fortunately the editor caught the homophonic faux pas and was able to backpedal the “peddle”out of there. If it’s your writing, there’s ego involved, certainly. I used to tell the sophomores, “What you write is who you are; your writing sets you up for scrutiny, puts you on display—even if it’s “Dear Diary” you’re writing to or for.

Then there’s the matter of punctuation, those little black sprinkles of ink strategically placed here and there in one’s writing. Punctuation according to Webster is: “The act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs in written matter to clarify the meaning and separate structural units.” The voice does this for us in oral expression but text is mute. No rising or falling inflection for questions or statements, no pauses to separate one idea from the other, no volume for emphasis, just little marks here and there to clarify context. Basically we salt our written text with those standardized dots, curly-cues and squiggles because the eyes have no ears, and a comma here and there can make a world of difference in meaning. Consider the sign posted by the ol’ swimmin’ hole: “No Swimming Allowed!” Use the local pool instead. “No, Swimming Allowed!” Dive right in.

Punctuation was so fascinating to the biologist Lewis Thomas that he wrote an essay about it in his book  The Medusa and the Snail. If punctuation seems dull to you, read Thomas’s “Notes on Punctuation”and the subject becomes,  if not exciting, at least interesting. In fact Thomas even has his favorite punctuation mark. “I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years,” His reason:

“It is almost a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted, or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

For Dickens, too, the semicolon reigned supreme; entire paragraphs are sentences strung together, like a Conga line, with semicolons. (Consider this from the printer’s perspective:  how many extra sheets of paper would be needed to print countless semicolons instead of periods, say if the novel was the length of seven to eight hundred pages?)

Thomas declared the exclamation mark to be the most “irritating of all” and likens the use of them “to be[ing] forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention….A single exclamation mark in a poem, no matter what else the poem has to say, is enough to destroy the whole work.” Whenever I’m tempted to “exclaim” something in a piece of writing, Thomas’s words always come to mind. I wonder what the old biologist would think of today’s Facebook postings or the exclamatory tweets? I imagine with all the exclaiming going on, Thomas’s eternal slumber is restless!!!

As far as punctuation goes, it’s the apostrophe that has its work cut out for it, and for that reason I think it odd that “Notes on Punctuation” has nothing to say about its use. Thomas likes commas well enough, and as I used to tell the sophomores, “An apostrophe is a helium-filled comma.” An apostrophe must multitask— serve as a proxy for a missing letter or letters ( o’clock: of the clock); to indicate possession, or to quote your junior high language arts teacher, “ownership,”(hens’ teeth); or to show the plural of a number or letter (four  i’s in Mississippi, ten 10’s in one hundred). I always pay the apostrophe union scale because it faithfully gives 110 %.

While it may be the most overworked punctuation mark, the apostrophe is also the most abused. Perhaps because the apostrophe floats above the line, it is difficult to tether it to the correct spot. To a large degree apostrophe confusion stems from the fact that at times the majority of nouns end in S, the plural form of common nouns in English. Most adults, children even, can count and know if you have more than one cat, you have cats. But what if that cat has a tail? Now you have a different situation, and the apostrophe is supposed to make that distinction: cat + its tail= cat’s tail. Now if you have a kindle of kittens, each with its own tail, you have cats’ tails. So it’s the S that’s the problem: either your language arts teacher didn’t make the distinction that TWO separate things were going on here, or you were watching the clock, not paying attention to this hum-drum stuff, thinking about your girlfriend, waiting for P.E., lunch, or the school bus. That explains why folks are so inclined to insert an apostrophe before the S whenever a plural noun shows itself: “kitten’s for sale; cherry cordial’s $1.99 a pound; pumpkin latte’s now in season….”

Apostrophe confusion also occurs with the contraction it’s, where the mark is a place holder for the missing “i” (it is) and the simple possessive form its (belonging to it). Just a little attention to these two words: “It’s tail was caught in the door”…do I really want to say, “It is tail was caught in the door,” which makes little sense. No, what I want to say is “the thing’s tail was caught in the door.” With a little attention it’s/its is an error easily avoided…unless the problem occurs in neon tubing such as the sign in the window of  Hill Street Cleaners which fronts Lewis Street in town. The establishment boasts: “Tailoring at it’s best!” How would one edit a neon sign anyway? Call Dale Chihuly, I guess.

All this apostrophizing brings to mind the classy new sign at the head of Ed Broers’ driveway. It is a wonderful sign, tastefully painted, trim and crisp—certainly in keeping with the Broers ’ meticulous attention to neatness, whether it be home, barn, or berry row. Such a well-crafted piece of carpentry like that should have a precise message, in my opinion: I would be proud to announce theirs was “my” farm if I were the Broers. Now if the sign read “The Broers,” that would be different, a simple matter of “the Broers live here.” But “Broers Farms?” Maybe the apostrophe was omitted because of modesty. Maybe it seemed an unnecessary adornment to craft a wooden apostrophe and float it after the S in Broers. Maybe the sign maker was unsure how to form the possessive of a plural noun ending in S: “Do I simply carve and add the apostrophe or should I carve the apostrophe AND an additional S?” (Only if Broers is pronounced Broers-ez…) Or maybe I should mind my own business, stop trying to edit the Valley, get back behind the editor’s desk, and just tend to the business of The Ripple.Pick a peck of berries

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  1. Well done. (Note the lack of an exclamation mark.) Correct grammar has been greatly undervalued in our culture for many years. Sadly, I didn't get a very good grounding in grammar from my time in the public school system. I learned much more about English grammar when I had to learn a foreign language. By the way, thanks again for the tomatillo starts. They seem to be happy in their new location.

    1. I appreciate the comment. I believe you use the term "grammar" in the general sense: the overall "standardized" rules for a language. Most English grammars, however, separate "grammar" from "punctuation." The latter applies only to written expression, while "grammar" pertains to both oral and written modes. Then there are the subsets of diction (stylistics) and orthography. I agree wholeheartedly that one does not truly understand his language until he's studied another. I remember an eureka moment when I transferred the subject of "case" from Latin to English.

      You're welcome for the tomatillos. More sprout every day--one of the most vigorous "weeds" in the garden. Tomatillos? Now you're talking Spanish.