Friday, May 24, 2013

Punc-EEK! Possessives, Plurals, and 'Postrophes

A number of eateries around here go by the name of Athens Pizza, and I've heard such good reviews of them, I'm tempted to give them a try. However, although their menus and online presence use "Athens," each restaurant proudly proclaims, on at least one outside wall, "Athen's Pizza." 

If they're as sloppy with their food as they are with their apostrophes...

It's a shame that the plural and the possessive both involve the letter s. Some folks get so uptight about it, they toss in esses and apostrophes in the vain hope that some will stick in the right place. Girl's' room, hers'elf, Athen's, Lan'sdale. The rules are simple in concept, even though the exceptions are numerous. Pay attention, now.

Most singular English nouns, including nouns that end in s, x, or z, form the possessive by adding 's. The horse's bridle, a girl's hat, the car's brakes, a worker's income, the class's assignment. You get the idea. Most plural nouns form the possessive by adding just the apostrophe. The horses' bridles, the girls' hats, the cars' brakes, the classes' assignments, the workers' incomes. 

These rules are pretty obvious when applied to common nouns, as above. What about proper nouns (that is, nouns that apply to a particular person, place or thing)? According to CMOS, the same rules apply. Secretariat's bridle, Lois's hat, the Lexus's brakes; the Lincolns' legacy, the Andrewses' house. Yes, that last one, funny as it looks, is correct. My last name is Andrews; my husband, kids and I are the Andrewses; we live in the Andrewses' house. Good thing I don't lisp. Theriouthly, when you run into a situation like this, rewrite to avoid such a silly-looking word.

To be honest, there is some leeway here. Some publishers will allow Lucas' as the possessive of Lucas, for instance, as long as you're consistent. 

You knew it would be more complicated than this, didn't you? Well, you're right. Some common nouns end in s and look plural, like politics, economics, species. These words take only an apostrophe to form the possessive: politics' effect on government, economics' beginnings, a species' evolution. If I knew an easy way to remember this, I'd tell you. Honest, you just have to memorize it, or check CMOS or your dictionary. By the way, the singular form of species is...species. Not specie. Shudder.

I could go on about the exceptions to the general rules about possessives, but the best thing to do is to put a sticky note at the relevant page in CMOS. And trust your editor.

I do want to mention what Lynne Truss calls "the greengrocer's apostrophe" or the singular possessive where the simple plural is needed. If you've ever seen Lemon's for sale and wondered, "Lemon's what is for sale?" or even "Who is Lemon and why is he/she for sale?" then you've encountered the greengrocer's apostrophe. Of course, the correct phrase is Lemons for sale. And, while it's not strictly about punctuation, here's one final note. The plural of potato is potatoes; tomato/tomatoes. However, it's banana/bananas, papaya/papayas. English is a little schizophrenic when it comes to foreign words ending in vowels. But please, no videoes.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Punc--EEK! Apostrophes

When I think of apostrophes, I think of riding in the backseat of our green, split-windshield Chevy on the Route 1 bridge across the Raritan River. That’s because when I was a second-grader, reading in the car, I asked my dad how to pronounce I-S-A-A-C-that comma thing but up in the air-S. He insisted I dredge the word up out of my memory instead of helping me out. Thanks a lot, Dad.
Apostrophe usage can be broken down into two main categories—as a stand in for dropped letters in contractions or dropped figures in dates (can’t, didn’t, ‘tis, the ‘80s) or in non-standard English (Look ‘ere, mate); or as an indication of the possessive (the cat’s bowl, Isaac’s book). Both seem relatively straightforward, but hey, we’re dealing with the English language here. It’s always more complicated than it seems. For today, I’ll just look at the apostrophe as a substitute. Next week I’ll tackle those pugnacious possessives.
[While I’m here, let me point something out. Notice that all but three of the above apostrophes have the tail pointing down and to the left. That’s as it should be. But many word processing programs treat an apostrophe at the start of a word (‘tis, ‘80s, ‘ere) like an opening single quote, with the tail pointing up and to the right. What a pain. Your work will look more professional and your editors will bless you if you correct this error. Here’s a tip: click CTRL + the apostrophe, release, then type the apostrophe. This tip also works when you need close quotes after a dash. The program will want to use opening quotes. Just click CTRL + Shift + quote key then release and type the quote. Ta-da!]
Contractions shouldn’t (should not) be much of a problem. We use them all the time. They’re (they are) often associated with forms of the verbs to be, to have, the various forms of will, would, should and with the negative not. Some examples:
I’m (I am)
You’re (you are)
It’s (it is)
We’ve (we have)
They’d (they had or they would)
Shouldn’t, wouldn’t, won’t, aren’t, haven’t, hadn’t

You can have double contractions. They’d’ve for they would have is somewhat colloquial but perfectly acceptable.
Its vs. it’s
Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” Every dog has its day. It’s is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” It’s a three dog night. It’s been a hard day’s night.

Your vs. you’re
Your is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to you.” Is that your dog? You’re is a contraction for “you are.” You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice, and you’re Daddy’s little girl.”

Their vs. they’re vs. there
Their is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to them.” Their dog chases my chickens. They’re is a contraction for “they are.” They’re afraid of dogs. There is an adverb meaning “in that place” (Stand over there) or a pronoun used to introduce a sentence or clause (There is no reason to confuse these words).
For a delightful excursion into the history and use of apostrophes, check out Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I promise you’ve never laughed so hard about punctuation.
Next week: Why I refuse to eat at Athen’s (sic) Pizza.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Punc--EEK! Capping it off redux

Last week we took a look at capitalization. Several comments came up that deserve clarification.

First of all, I'm not ashamed to admit I got part of it wrong. Or at least, I wasn't clear enough. I included endearments in the list of words that should be capitalized--honey, dear, sweetie. Most often those words should not be capped. Only cap them if they replace the person's actual name. For instance, if I call my sister Grumpyface rather than her given name, I'd cap it. (In point of fact, I do not call her Grumpyface. I call her Runs with Bears. But that's a whole 'nuther story.)

Regarding the names of relatives: If you call you father's sister Aunt Alice when you talk to her, do you also capitalize aunt when you talk about her (indirect address)? Yes, you do. Hi, Aunt Alice. I'll drive Aunt Alice to the store. However, there is an exception. If you're talking about an aunt named Alice, don't cap aunt. I'll drive my aunt Alice to the store, and my brother will drive my aunt Gert to church. 

Thanks to my gentle readers and fellow editors who questioned me on these issues and made me think harder and more clearly about them. Learning never ends.

The permutations of capital letters are nearly endless, especially when language is changing as fast as it is now. When I was learning grammar--heck, when my kids were learning grammar--a capital letter in the middle of word was unheard of. Now we have so many of them--LinkedIn, BrainBashers, InDesign--a new term had to be invented for them. Camel caps. When in doubt, do as I do and refer to CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style). 

Next time, the most misunderstood punctuation mark of them all--the apostrophe.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Punc--EEK! Capping it off

A capital letter can change the pronunciation of one word in English. Do you know what word that is? Answer at the end.

Strictly speaking, capital letters, aka upper-case letters, are not punctuation, but we'll treat them as such here. The basic rules for capitals are very easy:

1. Start sentences with a capital letter. Most word-processing programs will do this for you if you forget. 
2. Use a capital letter for proper nouns. (Improper nouns don't deserve them.)

As always in English, there are exceptions. If the first word of a sentence is a proper noun that is not capitalized, you don't have to cap it here. For instance, my son Jack used "jaQ" as his musical nom de guerre. jaQ Andrews is a guitar-pickin' genius is therefore correct. As is e.e. cummings is an intriguing poet. (For foreign names that include a particle, such as Jaques de Vaillancourt, consult CMOS.)

The second rule is the one that trips people up. Not because it's hard to understand--if it's a proper noun, capitalize it--but because the definition of a proper noun is a bit hazy. In theory, it's straightforward. A proper noun is the name of a particular person, place or thing. Nikki Andrews, Pennsylvania, Legos are all proper nouns. But some nouns can be proper sometimes, common other times. Everyone has a mom. You're special, Mom. Or The doctor is ready. Thanks for your help, Doctor. When a noun is used as a name or a form of address, cap it. Some examples would be relatives (mom, dad, uncle, aunt, cousin, grampa), officials, ranks, or professionals (doctor, nurse, officer, duke, chief), endearments (honey, love, sugar). 

Don't use a capital letter for occupations, even when combined with a name: writer Jessie Salisbury, architect I.M. Pei, poet Walt Whitman, district attorney Lee. Don't use them for titles that indicate  rank or office, unless a name is also used: the president but President Kennedythe sergeant but Sergeant Smith. Hint: if you can use the with the occupation, rank or office, don't capitalize.

When in doubt, check with CMOS or another reliable style manual,  or your publishers usage guide. Remember that modern usage tends to minimize capitals. Next time I'll go into some more detailed examples. If you have a question or a situation that puzzles you, I'd be glad to hear from you.

Click here to listen to an excerpt from jaQ Andrews' CD Stars or Streetlamps.

Oh, and that word I mentioned at the beginning ? It's Polish/polish.