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?

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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!!!

  3. 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.


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