Stop the Apostrophe Abuse

by Glenn on September 4, 2014

We were on our way to the church we were visiting last Sunday and there on the side of the road was this large stone marking an exit off the highway.

This is a photo of a rock marker by a driveway. It reads, "The Warner's."

Driveway sign off a highway in an undisclosed part of the country. I have a problem with that apostrophe and I hope either you do, too, or will soon.

This is wrong.

And while I want to keep the tone of this website high-minded, positive, and relatively rant-free, I repeat, this is wrong.

Lose the apostrophe. It is most likely unnecessary and most certainly confusing.

The stone should simply read, “The Warners,” as presumably there are more than one of them living there. If there is only one, then just “Warner” will suffice. If they did require an apostrophe, most likely it wouldn’t go where it is.

Consider this: You may want to go down to the harbor to see a boat or you may want to see two or more boats. That’s just fine. In fact, I can recommend Yaquina Bay on the Oregon Coast to do just that.

Under no circumstances, however, would you ever go down to the harbor to see the boat’s, although you might want to go down to the harbor at night to see either one boat’s or two or more boats’ lights reflected in the water. Are you with me so far?

Back to our sign with the unnecessary apostrophe. It comes down to this: If the rock is intended to indicate that a certain group of people lives in a certain place, then the rock should read, “The Warners.” Like this (with apologies for hasty Photoshop work):

This is a post-Photoshop version of the same photo as above, now with the apostrophe removed so that it reads, correctly, "The Warners."

This is the same photo of the rock marker by a driveway. I used Photoshop to remove the horrifying apostrophe so that the rock now reads, correctly, “The Warners.” Don’t you feel better seeing it like this?

As you look at this sign the way it is (see first photo), you need to ask yourself, “The Warner’s … what?” and “Which Warner?” That arrant knave of an apostrophe in that particular place is telling us that one member of the Warner family possesses something. Either get rid of the apostrophe or get clear about what you are saying. I know, “The world is on fire and you want to fix an apostrophe?” Uh, yeah.

I bring this up because this thing with the apostrophe happens a lot. Christmas isn’t that far away. John and Marsha Smith (a fictional couple) will be sending out a beautiful photo of their adorable family including the shmoopy black lab they got last Christmas. The return address will look something like this:

The Smith’s
123 Any Street
City, State, Zip Code

That will be wrong, too, although many other people will be doing it. Now, we don’t do things just because everyone else is doing them. And just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right.

The rule is this: Don’t use an apostrophe to make a noun plural. Just add an “s.” Or, in the case of a noun ending in “s,” add an “es.” That’s it.

The letter from our fictional family of Smiths should read, “Merry Christmas from the Smiths,” not “Merry Christmas from the Smith’s.”

Note: If you are dying (or at least needing) to use an apostrophe with a family name, which is to say if you are wanting to indicate that an entire family possesses something, the apostrophe will come after the “s.” For example, “Did you read the Smiths’ Christmas letter?”

If the family name ends with an “s,” then things are a bit more complicated. Bob, Sally, Jim, and Lucy Jones we known in the collective as the Joneses. “Let’s go to Joneses’ home to see the Joneses. This might make your head hurt. It does mine. I am grateful to be an Austin.

If we want to show possession by just one member of the Jones family we would be writing something like, “Hey, that car belongs to Mr. Jones,” or “Isn’t that Mr. Jones’ car?” (I know people who would argue for “Isn’t that Mr. Jones’s car?” I’m okay with that, but let’s leave that alone for now.)

 

Can you see how the apostrophe on our rock sign confuses things?

What is amazing about this mistake is the permanence of it.* That apostrophe was chiseled out of rock. On both sides. And that couldn’t have been cheap. I’m wondering if anyone has said anything. Do the Warners have friends who will speak truth into their lives, or at the very least tell them they’ve got a typo out in front of their home? I thought about writing them a letter, but I don’t know what I would say that wouldn’t come across as, “Boy are you stupid!” Perhaps they know it’s wrong but don’t know how to deal with the expense of it all.

 

Of all the punctuation marks, the apostrophe seems to be the one most abused. I have for some time been thinking about creating a website dedicated to the protection of the apostrophe. I wondered about the A.S.P.C.A. (American Society to Prevent Corruption of the Apostrophe) but, of course, that acronym is taken by a much more compelling organization. It’s certainly more important to protect animals than punctuation marks, although I’d like to live in a world where both dogs and apostrophes are safe.

I have also thought about creating an organization with more militant overtones, like the Apostrophe Police, but I’ve ruled that out because: 1. someone has already thought of it; and 2. policing includes the possibility of state-sanctioned violence. I find myself irritated by people who misuse apostrophes, but I certainly don’t think they should be in cuffs. Well, most of them. I need to keep things in perspective. Misusing an apostrophe is not the same thing as holding up a liquor store, although I think we’d all be a little more careful with our punctuation marks if a bad apostrophe meant community service or even jail time.

No, this needs to be a movement. This is the way a democracy works. This is how we roll in this country. My job will be to search for compelling reasons to get people to get serious about their apostrophe usage.

 

It’s not easy to get the apostrophe right. (Please, if I’ve made any mistakes here in this post, please let me know. Being your own editor means you miss things.) Among the challenges is the confusion that comes from the many roles the apostrophe has to play. (Kind of like theatre where one actor plays more than one role in the same play. “Wait, didn’t you just die? Oh, wait, that was a different you.”)

In addition to indicating possession, the apostrophe shows us where a letter is or letters are missing. An example: ‘til instead of until. The apostrophe is there to note the missing “un.” You can write, “Romeo and Juliet” or indicate lazy diction with apostrophes, “Romeo ‘n’ Juliet.”

In a similar vein, the apostrophe is used with contractions to show that letters have been removed as two words have been combined. “It is” becomes “it’s,” “we are” becomes “we’re,” and so on.

The apostrophe has some odd jobs, too, for example forming plurals of lowercase letters as in “Did you know that the word Mississippi has four i’s?”

If the number of roles for the apostrophe isn’t confusing enough, then we add in the differences in common usage between Americans and the English. And then we have to acknowledge that in our respective countries there often isn’t anything like consensus. (Without an Apostrophe Police, coercion is difficult. People hang on to their ways because insufficient incentives and penalties are in place to guarantee uniformity.) One example: Is it DVDs or DVD’s? Smart, well-meaning people will not agree and yet have something rather dogmatic to say about it, which can get frustrating because a thing cannot both be and not be.

We’ll save this discussion for another time.

The point of this post is to encourage caution with the apostrophe when used with proper nouns. Remember: Don’t confuse plural (the Warners, who are the members of the Warner family) with possessive (the Warners’ boat).

You’re going to see a lot of apostrophe abuse this Christmas. If it drives you nuts, then welcome to the movement. If you don’t know what I am talking about, then clearly I have more work to do.

 

*I almost wrote “… this mistake is its permanence,” but that could open a discussion about how impersonal pronouns do not require apostrophes to show possession.