Let’s Pick on the Apostrophe: Again?

A few days ago,  on September  5 to be precise, I was somewhat taken by,  and a bit amused by,  the obituary in the local daily for a British novelist and playwright,  who passed away at the age of 80.

I do not recall  hearing before of Keith Waterhouse.  Perhaps I had never read anything about or by him.  But I was prompted by the obituary to recall some of his great script writing for an early TV program.

The obituary writer (and believe me, people, these are important folks, and we will ourselves never hear the last of them) identified Mr. Waterhouse as “One of Us” when he mentioned this noteworthy author’s “strong streak of curmudgeonly humor”  (see Gene Smith’s punny column in last Saturday’s paper for a an essay by a fellow traveler of this kind.  And God bless him.).

As a TV journalist Waterhouse created a clever weekly series of curmudgeonly and satiric humor news reports in the 1960s which I certainly remember immensely enjoying:  “That Was the Week That Was,”  aka TW3.

The obituary ends by observing that “Waterhouse frequently railed against declining standards of English. He founded the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe.”

In the same mode as one of Charlotte’s “Web scripts” about Wilbur in the famous children’s book by E. B. White,  I am inspired to say this, “What a guy!”

I never have fully understood why the use of the apostrophe is such a dilemma for so many writers.  Poor teaching?  Amnesia?  A form of dyslexia not yet diagnosed and understood?

Comic strip writers use apostrophes liberally in the casual speech of their characters,  and they almost always use them very well.  Aren’t you as smart as a cartoonist?  Here is one day’s sampling:

(1)  Hagar the Horrible:  “I won’t invade England until I get the word. . .”  Hagar’s wife:  “Mother is coming to visit on  Tuesday.”  Hagar:  “THAT’S the word!”

(2) In “Blondie,” a comic strip in its eighth decade now:  Elmo mailing something:  “It’s a letter to Santa Claus.” Dagwood:  “Isn’t it a little early for something like that,  Elmo?”  Elmo:  “No . . .I’m sending quarterly reports in this year.”

(3)  Dennis to his mother as he holds a bottle in his hand:  “We’re christenin’ Joey’s new bike.”

(4)  Dolley in “The Family Circus” as she talks to two younger siblings:  “Everybody get your ‘God bless you’s’ ready.  I’m ’bout to sneeze again.”

You perhaps recall that the apostrophe is used primarily either to mark omission of a letter or to indicate possession. It can be underused or overused in error.  And there seems to be an unneeded apostrophe in one of the examples above. Which one?  And can you take out all of the apostrophes in the above examples and show their “original” forms before shortening occurred?  (One of these is quite a puzzler.)

Quite a while ago,  I wrote about a manager of the J.C. Penney’s store in Lumberton who was baffled as to whether he ought to use an apostrophe in this text of an ad:  Boys Jeans For Sale.  What would you do, and why?

Finally I came across this phrase on the packaging of country ham slices in the local Food Lion a few days ago:   Great for Grill’in.   Do you understand why I said “Aaargh!” and why Keith Waterhouse rolled over in his grave?

Best wishes,



19 Responses to “Let’s Pick on the Apostrophe: Again?”

  1. Daryl Cobranchi Says:

    Dolly. No apostrophe required to make the plural of you.

    Of course, everyone knows the real plural of you is “y’all.” Apostrophe definitely required.

  2. Forest Crump Says:

    (1) Hagar the Horrible: “I will not invade England until I get the word. . .” Hagar’s wife: “Mother is coming to visit on Tuesday.” Hagar: “THAT IS the word!”

    (2) In “Blondie,” a comic strip in its eighth decade now: Elmo mailing something: “It is a letter to Santa Claus.” Dagwood: “Is not it (Is it not,) a little early for something like that, Elmo?” Elmo: “No . . .I am sending quarterly reports in this year.”

    (3) Dennis to his mother as he holds a bottle in his hand: “We are christening Joey’s new bike.”

    (4) Dolley in “The Family Circus” as she talks to two younger siblings: “Everybody get your ‘God bless you’ ready. I am bout to sneeze again.”

  3. Daryl Cobranchi Says:

    Is the puzzler “won’t” (i.e., the contraction of “will not”)? The rest seem trivial.

  4. Tammy Stephens Says:

    “Boys Jeans For Sale. What would you do, and why?”

    Boys’. Because, it shows ownership.

  5. Dea Says:

    I think Boys is descriptive rather than possessive in this case so I would leave it alone,

    Dea> thanks for this observation. Maybe “descriptive” is not well established as a “usage” principle but it terms of intent it certainly fits.


  6. Macky Myers Says:

    I find the apostrophe confusing when confronted with ABC’s or oh’s and ah’s. I have noticed many confuse they’re, there, and their, as well. I think school children would be less apt to use double negatives in sentence structure if contractions were not so freely used in modern English.

    What would I do? (boys’ jeans)
    That “double negative” issue you bring up is worthy of some fuller observations and commentary, Macky Myers. A bakery of national scope is still using such as an effective gimmick: “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”

    I personally think the concept that “a double negative makes a positive” (as with batteries) is rather a fruitless rule when applied to the English language. . . . So stay tuned.


  7. CICvet Says:

    I found nothing re; apostrophe in Elements of Style (the writers’ King James Bible, (the one used w/writers(“‘”) was correctly used)). Of course, if you were taught by Sister Mary Terminator, you’d best do it her way.

  8. Jeff Thompson Says:

    Re: The J.C. Penney ad dillema: Let’s say Tammy has a sign over her mailbox which reads The Stephens. Should there be an apostrophe? Yes and no, as I see it. If the intent of the sign is to say that the Stephens live there, no. If it’s intended to mean that it’s the Stephen’s home, yes. It depends on the intent of the user.

  9. Jeff Thompson Says:

    As for grill’in, the apostrophe is misplaced. It goes after the n to signify the missing g in grilling,

  10. Tammy Stephens Says:

    It didn’t read “The boys”, which would be the same as, the Stephens. It read “Boys Jeans”, which would be like “the Stephen’s home”. Was that you driving by our house tonight? (Just picking on ya. 😉 )

  11. pen Says:

    That would be the Stephens’ home.

  12. Gregory Phillips Says:

    Regarding misplaced apostrophes, Daryl’s mention of y’all reminds me that I front see it typed ya’ll, which is really annoying.

  13. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Good point.

  14. Raymond Rundus Says:

    The early and several replies to this blog posting indicates (1) that there is interest in the topic by many writers, (2) that there is confusion among many of those in category (1) about what is or at least better in usage of this mysterious mark, and (3) that some folks have entirely too much time on their hands . . . . [Might also be aware that the apostrophe is a tool useful to writers but has little lasting interest to those who speak more in their profession, such as Jeff Thompson previously.]

    Well, so do I p’raps [have too much time on my hands]. Let’s work on this a bit more:
    (a) Daryl C’s and Forest C’s comments on what Dolley says in “Family Circus”> it is cartoonist Bil Keane’s bad to have inserted the apostrophe to make the plural form of “you” > “’bout” would be “about” in full display. And comments by Daryl C and Gregory P re the Southernism “y’all” > I agree that “ya’ll” is to be deplored for it does nothing to improve or improvise upon “y’all.” [When I first came to NC from the Plains State of Kansas where most things were also plain and simple, a native to the manor/manner born explained to the that “y’all” was considered singular and “all y’all” plural.]
    (b) The exchanges in “Hagar the Horrible” The full pattern for “I won’t” is “I will not,” which seems odd since “I willn’t” would be the “logical” form: have to go back a few years to explain this, no doubt. The “g” that Dennis drops in his comments about Joey’s bike is very common in common speech–in our country at least > “Joey’s bike” also would seem very easy on the tongue and pen compared to “the bike of Joey” > which seems unnatural or odd.
    (c) CICvet makes an interesting observation about usage rules for the apostrophe, writing that he found nothing in “The Elements of Style” about it.
    I have two copies of the Third [1979] edition of this famous book, based on lectures at Cornell University by William Strunk, Jr. and later published in revised form by his more famous student E. B. White, author of many short stories and essays as well as author of such famous children’s stories as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” In his Introduction White pays tribute to Strunk for having set down absolute rules for forming the possessive of singular nouns by adding -s, no matter if the word already ends with -s. And the first subsection of this little book covers the use of the apostrophe in singular nouns. Moving then to Jeff T’s wrestling with the correct form to use for a family named “Stephens” > the correct possessive would be as in “the Stephens’ home” or without the apostrophe, “the home of the Stephenses,” which many would prefer. If the owner was Stephen, the correct possessive would, of course, be “Stephen’s home.”
    And Tammy S is herself right about how to handle the apostrophe in the phrase, “Boys Jeans on Sale” as in the J.C. Penney ad [which would seem very odd printed as “The Jeans of Boys on Sale”] > “Boys’ Jeans on Sale.”

    I believe that “The Elements of Style” is still in print but probably costing a bit more than the $1.95 printed on one of my copies. A sentence from an early review in the “Boston Globe” probably sums it up as well and succinctly as possible: “No book in shorter space,with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”
    If you want a thorough explanation of the exceptions to the general rules about the apostrophe, the place to go would be “The Chicago Manual of Style.”



  15. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    I have recently noticed that even Yankees use y’all now. What’s this world comin’ to?

  16. Jeff Thompson Says:

    Now, in the south, it’s “..all of y’all.”

  17. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Let me add that my last name is pronounced “Stevens”? Many have been pronouncing it “Stefens”.
    Jeff probably knows since he’s been driving by. I’m thinking he’s the one that gave us all the bad luck lately. 😆

  18. Jeff Thompson Says:

    Tammy, what’s that crack supposed to mean?

  19. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Read this thread, and my thread “What a Week”. Only joking with you, because you used my name. Relax, and have some fun! Life is too short to be so serious all the time.

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