Apostrophes Don’t Mean, “Here Comes an S!”

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 5, 2011

Okay, people, I can’t stand it any longer. Something’s got to give, and please let it not be my overloaded brain. One of the problems with the ubiquity of the Internet is that it exponentially speeds up the transmission of errors, especially spelling mistakes, grammatical misuse, punctuation ignorance and abuse. Clearly, these socially transmitted diseases are on the rise, and it’s up to us book people and pedants to start spreading prophylactics among the masses before it’s too late. Because — and here’s my main beef relevant to ShelfTalker’s concerns — the STDs are starting to show up in edited publications, books and online articles and ads, indicating that even the copyeditors who are supposed to be trained specialists in these matters are starting to slide down the slippery slope of popular adoption.
Far too many novels for children these days contain uncorrected mistakes like “Me and her went to the store;” “I just wanted to lay down and cry;” “Between you and I;” “He told her and I that….” There are a few exceptions, I suppose. I do concede that “It’s me” rests more easily on the ear than “It is I,” especially when the character saying it is 10 years old. But I don’t buy the argument that dialogue won’t sound believably kid-like if it’s actually grammatically correct. Read any book by Natalie Babbitt or E.B. White or Norton Juster, and you’ll be reassured that good grammar wielded well is invisible and takes a back seat to story and character every single time. Whereas I can’t even finish an easy reader in which a talking animal says “I’m taller than her.” No, you’re not! I’m not asking authors to use unnatural-sounding constructions; “I’m taller than she” would of course sound absurd to this era’s children. But “I’m taller than she is” is correct, unobtrusive, and doesn’t perpetuate bad grammar among a group of children trying to learn it for the first time. Aaargggh!
A recent book promotion ad online for an adult novel mentioned “the Brother’s Grimm” (especially irksome, since I think the author meant to reference Hans Christian Andersen), and that’s when my patience snapped. An apostrophe actually means something in a word: it indicates missing letters (as in “can’t” for “cannot” or “it’s” for “it is”), indicates possessive case (“the girl’s penchant for proper usage”), or (and this is debatable, and likely where the problem started) can indicate the plural of something that isn’t actually a word, such as “the 1980’s” or “Mind your p’s and q’s.” What an apostrophe doesn’t mean is, “There’s an S at the end of the word, so I guess I’d better throw in this random mark in case it’s correct.”
When was the last time you met someone who confidently (and properly) used the verb “lie” instead of “lay,” or knew the difference between “Molly and I” and “Molly and me?” (cf. quickie explanations of lie/lay and  I/me, she/her, he/him. Here’s one for “between you and I.“) There are countless websites trying to stem the tide of ignorance; a good one-stop-shopping site is the University of Northern Iowa’s Welcome to Dr. Grammar FAQ page. And let’s not even get into the whole your/you’re mess. Why why WHY is it so hard to understand that “you’re” = “you are?” (In fact, click here to enjoy many errors amusingly exemplified and summarily dealt with, such as loose/lose, there/they’re/their, etc.) And there are wonderful books out there that make this so easy on us writers: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (heck, get the kids’ version, if you want to cut to the basics). Elements of Style by Strunk & White (this edition illustrated by Maira Kalman). Or my very favorite, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
I know I’m not alone in my frustration, and I also know that many wonderful writers have a little more of a c’est la vie attitude about grammar. (Stephen Fry has a fun YouTube video about lightening up on the grammar policing.) But there’s a difference between changing language to better serve its users, and simple ignorance that exchanges error for correct usage when both are equally easy to use.
What say you?

65 thoughts on “Apostrophes Don’t Mean, “Here Comes an S!”

  1. BETH

    Here here!!! But did you notice that the book cover carries a comma after the word Eager? Catches my eye every time! I could go on but you nailed the frustration right on.

  2. Lee

    What a great post. I’ve long thought that I’m the only person left in the United States who understands and cares about the difference between to lie and to lay! I could go on and on about errors in print, which are everywhere–and I will often stop reading a book entirely if there are too many.
    I think the comma after eager, above, is the Oxford Comma, which is still correct in some style manuals.

  3. rds

    Actually, the comma after the Eager is a serial comma (aka Oxford comma) and is one of two correct ways of including commas in a list. So it isn’t wrong in this book title; it just might not be the version of commas in a list that you’re most familiar with. Many publishing houses use serial commas as their house style, though not all. It is the older version of comma usage and is starting to change.

  4. Heidi Kortman

    Oh, yes! I agree with you wholeheartedly. When one’s proofreader’s eye and editor’s ear don’t turn off, what’s seen and heard can be painful.

  5. Suzanne F

    Beth: Of course there’s a comma there: Unlike Truss, Gordon is not a Brit, so she (quite properly) uses the serial comma. Shame on Bluemle for omitting it. Otherwise, her rant is right on. Add to her list The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), available at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html for a reasonable subscription fee, which is easily searchable and even has a forum where the unsure can ask for help.
    There is a line between “the writer’s voice” and what is just plain wrong. As a copy editor, it’s my job to distinguish between the two and gently suggest a fix for the latter. That’s tough. And being of a certain age, I was brought up to use all the correct punctuation; I fear that many other CEs working now were not, so they don’t know to correct the writers’ errors. They probably don’t even know that CMOS exists. Sigh.

  6. Lyle Blake Smythers

    @Beth, as Lee points out, the comma after “eager” is an example of the Oxford comma; it is also called the Harvard comma and the serial comma. There is a Wikipedia article about it. It is always correct, although some people don’t like it and are trying to get rid of it.
    BTW, I think you mean “Hear, hear!” and not “Here here!” While we’re on the topic of being picky about language.

  7. Trixie

    I am driven to distraction by the constant incorrect use of your/you’re in the online world.
    “Your a crackpot” VS. “You’re a crackpot.”
    Is it really so hard, people?

  8. Mary

    thank you Elizabeth for your valid and useful critique! Strange that both writers and editors seem to have forgotten that one of the reasons for reading to children as well as publishing books children may read for themselves, is these activities teach how to construct sentences with words. If therefore, they hear and read improperly constructed sentences, this is exactly what they learn as “proper” – no matter how incorrect and improper it actually is.
    Hopefully your instructive words will reach people who can do something about this problem. Again, thank you.

    1. Conni Eversull

      You’re absolutely right, Mary. Children absorb what they hear. I’m reminded of this every day by my two-year old grandson. If he is able to put words into the proper context when he’s just heard them from the adults in the house, he can certainly learn proper sentence structure by listening. I try to watch my words and sentences because he’s like a sponge absorbing what he hears!
      Great article, Elizabeth. I agree with your thoughts.

  9. Susan RoAne

    Loved the post! Sometimes I think my reactions are “school marm-ish” because I taught Language Arts before I became an author. I taught my students the apostrophe rules, the comma rules and when and how to use quotation marks so they wouldn’t be plagiarizers.
    What also drives me crazy are the new spellings of words either by those using Chicago style sheets or the adaptations of “common (incorrect) usage”.
    Who decided that acknowledgement would no longer need the e after the g but that engagement could happily keep it?
    Thanks for the post!

  10. mmm

    I confess that I cringe when I hear someone say, “He asked David and I to join him,” and that misplaced apostrophes annoy me even more than missing ones. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue for continuing to use different pronoun cases when we don’t decline nouns. Apostrophes no longer signal meaning the way I’m sure they once did, since context usually does the job. Maybe it’s time to do away with apostrophes altogether. I don’t think anyone would have trouble figuring out the meaning of the previous sentence or this one without the apostrophes. As for the correct usage of lie and lay, if so few people understand the difference, maybe it’s time to let that one lie too.

  11. Ellie Miller

    “Here here!”??? Oh, well…but heartfelt huzzahs! for this wonderful post and a strong second to your endorsement of Lynne Truss and her delightful book. Your thoughts also prompt a personal note: you haven’t LIVED until you’ve tried to teach the difference between lie and lay to a classroom full of giggling teens! Almost as tough as getting safely past the “There is no frigate like a book…” roadblock in Emily Dickinson’s poetry…LOL.

  12. Molly Weston

    Another voice for the grammar patrol! Terrific article, and I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said.
    My personal conviction is that grammar went out the window when diagraming sentences was tossed from the English curriculum. Talk about the baby and the bath water!
    (And I hold that the Oxford comma is still important in lists.)

  13. Jan Arzooman

    I LOVE the title, and the whole piece. I found the link to this on Twitter, and plan on retweeting it. This is also the first I’ve seen “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire.” I might have to go order it.
    I agree with those above who said the comma in the title of the book is acceptable in some style books. I’ve always called it a serial comma, not an Oxford comma (I’ve only recently started hearing “Oxford comma”–according to Wikipedia it’s also known as a Harvard comma.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma
    Jan Arzooman

  14. Carol B. Chittenden

    Thank you for shining a light on this utterly annoying problem. As soon as I come across a grammatical error in an ARC, I ask myself if it’s simply a typo, or careless editing. After the second one, I lay the book aside and move on to the next ARC.
    Where will the next generation of editors learn proper grammar?
    Oh — and I LOVE The Transitive Vampire! It should be atop every true writer’s desk.

  15. Pam

    On Facebook a former sister publication of PW’s ran the story “Librarians Breath Sigh of Relief as CPSIA Amended to Exempt Books From Lead Testing”. I couldn’t let it go, and commented on the post “Breathe. With an E.”
    Drives me INSANE.

  16. June

    I share your frustration and concern. Let’s start with correct grammar in books for children and continue it into the realm of writing for adults, please!
    Such mistakes are enough to make me close a book and just stop reading. I won’t, of course, but I long for the days of excellent proofreaders.
    Two other handy and enjoyable websites are the classic americanenglishdoctor.com and a new BottomlineEnglish.com.

  17. Dr P

    I actually find myself holding my breath at times so that I don’t correct people with whom I’m speaking. In e-mail, my professional colleagues will use “your” when they mean “you’re.” My skin crawls thinking that they’re communicating with their client base in that way.
    Keep this kind of education going. Words matter. Their usage matters.
    Thank you!!
    ~ Dr P ~

  18. Ben

    Many good comments, but the correct term is, “hear, hear!” It is a shortened form of agreement, basically saying, “hear, all you people, hear what this intelligent speaker has to say!” Regarding the comma, without it there are only two entities–the innocent and those who are eager and doomed. With the necessary comma, there are three categories of people needing help with grammar, and as pointed out, there are incredible quantities of each out there!

  19. Jessica

    Wonderful post! I’ve come across many niggling little typos in recent books. The typos are distractions that take me right out the story. It does make me wonder about the current state of publishing.
    I see the situation as three problems: 1) the publishers feels it’s OK to cut corners by doing fewer reviews of the manuscript before publication; 2) in this economy, many looking for jobs think they can be a freelance editor as long as they can spell; 3) writers, who now have a viable option in self-publishing if they can’t get picked up by one of the major houses, feel they are able to edit their own writing or have one of their friends edit the manuscript.
    Whether the book is put out through traditional publishing or self-publishing, surely the cost of an experienced, professional editor is worth it when the book keeps the reader’s attention for the story, not for the errors she ends up finding.
    *Stepping off the soapbox onto which I inadvertently stepped.*

  20. A Baker

    Outstanding. Couldn’t agree more.
    As per Carol, if I find more than one or two errors in a book, I put it aside and make note of the author so that I don’t buy their books again.
    I have actually gone back to older novels (say 1980’s) written by British and American authors. No (or very little) blue language, and proper writing.
    From time to time I will write to an author with a suggestion. Funny how often it is rejected. Instead of being grateful and wanting to learn, the response is either deflect (it was the editor), defend (you’re too picky), or deny (other experts allow this usage). They seem to be unaware how much they are revealing about their own ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity.
    Again, thanks. Will add this to my blog list. Good to know there are others out there, not elitists, just people who love language.

  21. Russell Bianca

    Just between you and I, I can’t understand why theirs such a commotion about this. Irregardless, I’ll add my two sense — your making a mountain out of a molehill. I never would of thought that such a miner detail like spelling wrongly wood cause this much problems.

  22. Jean Barber

    When I was in high school (ancient days since I now am 74), we had daily spelling and grammar tests. We had to pass a basic English grammar test at the end of our senior year or we couldn’t graduate.
    I know a businessman who won’t hire anyone for any position unless that person is a college graduate. “At least, then I know the person can read and write,” he says. But that’s not necessarily true. Recently, I was reviewing a resume for college business major graduate…….and every word that ended in “s” was preceeded by an apostrophe, including his name!

  23. Lynne

    Your so write! Many times, I wish, that all six grader’s, would have had teacher’s like Mrs. Patterson to teach, grammar to them like myself. Then they’re wouldn’t be so many issue’s with apostrophe’s and spelling and all kind’s of punctuation problem’s thank you for righting such a grate artical.

  24. Lynne

    Your so write! Many times I, wish that all six grader’s had Mrs. Patterson to teach all the rule’s, of grammar punctuation and, spelling. Thank’s for righting such a grate artical.

  25. Peter

    Hoo boy. Great article, but to one of your examples, I’ll lobby for 1980s, not 1980’s. No reason for an apostrophe there. 1980s is clear and a very simple pluralization. Spelled out it would be nineteen eighties, not nineteen eightie’s. Also, 1980’s has a discrete meaning — belonging to the year 1980, as in “1980’s record temperature.” This kind of thing is often abbreviated, and that would be best written as ’80s — the apostrophe replaces the 19. If you use the convention of an apostrophe before the s, then the abbreviation becomes an unwieldy ’80’s.

  26. Pingback: Pet Peeve (Part of a Series): Mis’-Use of the Apostrophe’ « The Shebeen Club

  27. Becky

    Bad grammar in pop songs is even worse! Even the generally well-educated Lady Gaga uses “I” when she means “me” in her song “You and I.”

    1. Kitti

      How about Jason Mraz? It’s our “god-forsaken right to be loved”? Really? God has forsaken love? And his use of “hes-A-tate” instead of hesitate just makes me want to jerk the wheel and end it all.

  28. BETH

    It’s Friday. I thought the here here would be funny. This topic just sends me over the edge. I’ll remember not to use humor when frustration gets the best of me!

  29. Aaron

    Thanks for this piece. My daughter has a book from Disney/Pixar’s imprint that contains no less than 4 grammatical/mechanical/spelling errors. This from one of the biggest and wealthiest corporations in the world. I sent them a letter detailing each error and advising them to hire me if they want clean edits going forward. Sure, they’d have to pay for it – starting salary of, say, $500,000 per year and I get to work from home – but they wouldn’t look foolish anymore. And they could afford it.
    Still waiting for a reply to that one.

  30. Theresa M. Moore

    Now all we have to do is concentrate on educating readers about dangling participles and transposed prepositions. Use of improper contractions, improper spelling of adverbs and transitives has been a bugaboo of mine for years. Readers should have already learned these things in school. So should book editors.

  31. Carin S.

    Actually, the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t want an apostrophe in “the 1980s” either, Elizabeth! So if you want to eliminate even more unnecessary apostrophes, that’s another one that can go.
    And Carol, ARCs haven’t been proofread at all – they are fresh from the typesetter so they really might have unintentional errors that are caught before the final printing (hopefully!) Having just 2 typos as your cutoff will eliminate a lot due simply to typesetting errors.
    Thanks for fighting the good fight! Long live the serial comma!

    1. BookishCook

      I agree, there should be no apostrophe in 1980s. The apostrophe is used in pluralizing single letters or some acronyms because it is confusing otherwise. For example, “a’s” without the apostrpophe is as. There is no such confusion with numbers.

  32. Lindsay Schlegel

    Amen! This kind of stuff drives me up a wall, too. I saw a public works truck in Prospect Park recently that had a sticker that read something like “Make’s turns often.” Who put that comma in there? It’s just a simple present tense verb!
    As the mother of a young boy, I’m also disturbed when bad grammar makes its way onto t-shirts. Babies need good grammar, too, or else what is the world coming to?

  33. Karen Ruelle

    Those serial commas, Beth. Can’t stand ’em, myself!
    Great post! My pet peeve: misplaced and misused apostrophes. Although, once I thought I’d found a great error in Petes’ Place. Turns out there were more than one Pete involved. Go figure!

  34. Dottie Gutenkauf

    Don’t forget the damage that Spellcheck and other such programs have done–they can’t tell the difference between their, there and they’re, and it drove me nuts until I stopped using it. English usage in this country is almost as much a disaster as the economy.

  35. Shae

    Preach it! If I see “to” and “too” switched or “awe” used for “aww” one more time, I do believe my head will explode.

  36. betty tisel

    I couldn’t believe my eyes when a character in a novel published last year was “pouring over the newspaper” EEK RUN SCREAMING FROM THE ROOM

  37. CarolT

    I share your frustration and likewise denounce the Internet for the exponentially faster spread and ingraining of ignorance about grammar, spelling, punctuation, diction, and usage. Even more galling is that lauded, so-called literary mags and blogs make all the mistakes and more of the poorly educated masses. Many of those sites are utterly unedited, repetitious ramblings riddled with “ummms….”, and “huhs??????” and “duhs!!!!!!!”, and every OMG and “like” cliche and grunt currently in use by the Homer Simpsons. They intersperse their drivel with an ellipsis every four words and four parenthetical expressions per paragraph. I suppose those writers consider, “Seriously??????”, to be witty and trenchant analysis. I think they like to hear themselves type and perhaps if they are unable to lift their fingers off punctuation keys it is reason for them to see a neurologist. I avoid sites like the Literary Saloon and Ward Six, the latter now thankfully defunct. If I visit the website of an author whose book I am considering buying and see poorly written, unedited slop that a 7th grade English teacher would slather in red pencil, I am offended and dissuaded.

    1. Penny

      When I am working on my genealogy, every time I type, say “Smiths” for two or more people of the same name, Spellchecker tells me it is “Smith’s!”
      Not unless you are using the possessive case, such as “Mr. Smith’s house.”
      I go nuts when I see signs such as ‘Hot dog’s’ or
      I agree with the person who is driven nuts by such gems as ‘He poured over the map.” Did he serve it a
      beverage? How about “The Calvary came to the rescue.”
      Dammit, Calvary is where Christ died! CAV-alry are
      soldiers on horseback, or modern armored units. I have seen guys on the news who are IN the Cavalry, say Calvary!
      The proliferation recently of sayings like “Less money and less people.” That should be “Less money, and FEWER people!”
      I hate ‘prevenTAtive, ExploiTAtive,”Mason-ary” (should be “Masonry”), etc.
      And my grandson did not nearly get his butt shot off in three tours in “Eye-rack!” It is “Ee-rahk,”
      “Ee-rahn!” Or should we change that other Middle East country to “Eye-sreal?” And what really makes me crazy: On the evening news, to see a young officer serving over there, who says “We found this
      cashay of weapons . . .” It’s “Cache” and it sounds like “Cash!” “Cachet” sounds like “Cashay!” The first, “Cache” is a place of storage, usually for weapons or food. “Cachet” means to have a style about oneself, or a personality of grace and fashion, which attracts other people to a given person. Arggghh! And presumably, some of those young officers are military academy graduates. How did they get out of those academies, not knowing how to correctly pronounce words like “cache?” We are a military family – My husband and I were speaking to another young Navy officer who used the word “Epitome” in conversation with us.Yup: it came out EPPY-TOME! As for the use of “I” or “Me” in a sentence, I check out how it would sound if I was speaking only of myself. “Me was involved in a conversation” is obviously nuts. So, “My husband and I.”

  38. Gene K. Garrison

    I’m a writer who likes punctuation and correct grammar. However, when I am quoting someone who speaks colloquially, I don’t correct the grammar. I wrote
    “From Thunder to Breakfast” in the voice of an American pioneer. It helped with the characterization.

  39. Gene K. Garrison

    I am a writer who likes correct punctuation and grammar. However, I when I wrote “From Thunder To Breakfast” I did it in the voice of the pioneer I interviewed. It helped with the characterization. In general, errors grate on my mind.

  40. Richard W. Kimball

    I once worked with a newspaper editor who didn’t know what to do with the word “its” as a possessive. He changed a perfectly good “its” to “it’s” and then finally to “its'”. YIKES!

  41. Diana Faust

    Saw a great sign In the college English Dept hallway:
    Good grammar saves lives!
    — “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”
    — “Let’s eat Grandpa!”

  42. Linda

    My pet peeve is misspelled words on billboards. If a local company is advertising to get business, the owner should take the time to make sure all the punctuation and words are correct. I don’t want to do business with them, because they might be as sloppy in their product/service.

    1. Kitti

      It’s my opinion that much of our grammatical disinformation comes from advertising and marketing. That’s why most folks don’t know the difference between “waist” and “waste”. Or how to spell quick.

  43. Allison Palmer

    It’s “copy editor.” And “1980s.”
    Whether in novels for children or adults, sometimes, to be true to character, dialogue is going to be ungrammatical. Depending on the style and tone of the narrative voice, sometimes that will be ungrammatical, too.
    Blogs about grammar, on the other hand, nearly always contain one or more grammar error, even though they needn’t.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Allison, blame my copy editor. Kidding. Actually, the term IS copyeditor (cf. Amy Einsohn’s manual, The Copyeditor’s Handbook).
      Yes, I prefer 1980s to 1980’s, but the latter is an approved usage, and is in the post to explain some of the original confusion about apostrophes used to indicate plurals. See Chicago Manual of Style 7.14.
      About ungrammatical dialogue: I maintain that it’s possible to be both correct and realistic. As for errors in blog posts (not blogs) about grammar, I suspect it can be likened to a centipede suddenly paying too much attention to how it walks and tripping over its hundred feet.

  44. Leslie

    And another thing! The comma before (or after) a noun of direct address has disappeared completely. I see “Welcome interns” in corporate communications, not to mention “Go Bucks!” or “Good-bye winter.” I got so overwrought that one year my sister gave me a birthday cake, made to order at the bakery, with the greeting “Happy Birthday comma Leslie.”

  45. Andrea Vuleta

    My biggest peeve is homophones. I suspect it is sheer laziness that allows a correctly spelled word to live in a sentence. No actual editing there, just spell-check, right? Unfortunately when this does occur, it seems to continue throughout the entire text! I don’t know if it comes from a brain glitch? It does not seem to be a case of poor typing (my greatest sin), but actual incorrect use. The most recent for me was “My interest was peeked..” I had to walk away from the book to cool down as it was the third instance in the text.

  46. Catherine

    You are my new found hero. I have five children (and a husband) and they think I am a thorn in their (not “there”) side by constantly correcting their improper use of me/I and all other horrors that you mention. I hear their teachers say and teach incorrect grammar and have been known to challenge them and pull out my high school English book to prove that I am correct! Keep up the good work!!!

  47. Ann Perrigo

    Recently I read an ARC where the misuse of lie/lay was so distracting (it was incorrect, I believe, every single time it was used!) that I emailed the author expressing my dismay. He assured me that his copy editors had already given him a lesson in the proper use. But, YIKES!


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