O, apostrophe!

We all make mistakes.  Approaching nine years of writing this column, I have the greatest sympathy for the earnest souls who’ve had the task of proof-reading my weekly 828 words.  

It can’t be easy.

Generally, I write quickly.  If you’re reading a column of mine, and it reads well, chances are I banged it out in less than an hour – and spent another hour cutting it down to the proper length.

As I prune, I’ll spot a few words which cry out for something more apt or delicious.  But in general, it’s mostly a matter of pruning.  The good columns usually come quickly.

Occasionally, however, there will be a column than “writes hard” – requiring a lot of re-writing.  Those are the ones that sometimes end up being awkward or confusing.   Not surprisingly, they also contain more than the usual number of challenges for my editors – especially words I meant to delete, but didn’t.

Easy or hard, my drafts usually contain examples of my own peculiarities – such as a tendency to overuse dashes and italics.  Occasionally, there’ll also be a misspelling.

I’ll fight for my punctuation choices and my italicizations, but I regret the misspellings.  

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s nearly impossible to catch every mistake in one’s own writing.  That’s why a good editor is so valuable.  She, or he, keeps you from looking like an illiterate.

All of the above comes to mind in the context of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, reporting the virtual disappearance of the apostrophe from America’s geographical place names.

The villain of the piece, not surprisingly, is a government agency – the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.  This Board was created in 1890, under President Benjamin Harrison – a Republican, please note.  

I’m just saying...

At any rate, the Domestic Names Committee has a pronounced antipathy to the apostrophe.  It doesn’t approve of this punctuation mark.  Indeed, in over a century, it has only approved five geographical names including an apostrophe in the possessive sense, as in Martha’s Vineyard – one of the five exceptions.

But Pike’s Peak?  No such place.  

Try Pikes Peak.

Why, it’s as if Zebulon Pike never made the perilous ascent to the top of the 14,000-foot titan then known as El Capitán!

Well, actually, he didn’t even come close.  But that’s another story.

Still it’s dismaying that an agency of the US Government is actually contributing to Americans’ unending confusion about the proper use and placement of the apostrophe – by refusing to employ them properly.

I suppose it’s a losing battle, but I still believe there’s much to be said for knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation.  

If only so that you can break them.  (As in the foregoing sentence fragment – a device I use often, but, I trust, never without being aware of the fact.)

Proper spelling is also vital.  It can, for example, lead to interesting discoveries about word origins – etymology – which would be otherwise incomprehensible.   Moreover, looking up the spelling of a word – in a dictionary, not online – can lead to interesting discoveries among the words which happen to fall on the same page.

Is there anyone over the age of 45 who has never opened a dictionary in order to look up one word – only to become distracted by some of the other words on the same page?  

Is there anyone under 25 who has?

Grammar and punctuation can be arbitrary, but an exploration of their logic can be positively enthralling.  These rules, after all, were not handed down from on high.  They evolved, through the ordinary interaction of millions of people over many centuries.  The codification of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the definitions of words are  fairly recent developments.

There’s something beautiful in understanding the internal logic of our fascinating system of written communication.

One of my favorite reads of the past ten years is a little book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss.  Its title comes from a description of the dietary habits of the panda bear, which eats shoots and leaves of bamboo.

Add a comma, though, and you have Al Pacino’s big moment from The Godfather.

If you’re among those people who still care about grammar, spelling and punctuation, Truss’s book will not only inspire you – it will have you laughing out loud.  Pick up a copy.  You’ll get a warm feeling of not being alone in this benighted, modern world.

You’ll also be happy to know that the intransigence of the Domestic Names Committee has been challenged by an organization known as the Apostrophe Protection Society.

I’m not sure whether I’ll join, but I applaud their efforts.

And I don’t blame the APS for defending the use of apostrophes in place names.  

They love the apostrophe.  Indeed, I suppose they feel rather possessive about it.


O, apostrophe!

Lynne Truss has also written a children's book with the same title (Eats, Shoots and Leaves) but with a different subtitle: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference. Laughed so hard at both books that I almost lapsed into a comma.

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