October 10th, 2007

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April


Here beginneth the first lesson on punctuation and typography for the grammatically challenged.

The apostrophe is that dangling curly thing (or, in some fonts, that dangling straight bit) which all too commonly betrays a novice writer's ignorance rather than helping a story sell.   It's also misused in advertising, including yard sale signs and store ads, and young writers may pick up very bad habits that way.

The apostrophe has two proper uses:  it signals a contraction (from "do not" to "don't" for example) and it shows possession (John's cow, Ann's saddle, the book's cover, the soldiers' mission.)  

Something was needed to show possession because English does not have full declensions anymore (except in pronouns), and the final letter chosen to show both is the same, the "s".   One cow, two cows, but also (adding in the apostrophe) the cow's tail, the cows' tails.  Languages that still  have a genitive form (the understood "of the") don't need an apostrophe or anything else--the word itself changes so you always know when it's plural and when it's possessive.  The apostrophe--a small but noticeable mark--was a good choice for this marker.

In one special area, the apostrophe is NOT used to show possession: the possessive pronouns (his, hers, its, ours, theirs, yours) do not use an apostrophe.  Pronouns still carry the old case markers. Using an apostrophe with possessive pronouns is wrong.  It's not necessary, and misuse creates confusion.  Correct :"Its outer casing was broken; we fixed it  and it's now working fine."

The apostrophe is NOT used to signal plurals except in a few cases, where the simple "s" or "es" by itself might be confusing.  "The following students made all-As" could be read as "all-as" even using a capital letter with lower case, so it is permissible, with all-caps symbols, to use a lower-case "s" with an apostrophe:  "The following students made all-A's."  However, this limited use does not mean that apostrophes are acceptable (let alone necessary) in all plurals.    And if you can avoid it, even in these cases, you'll  be doing clear communication a favor. 

Misuse of the apostrophe to signal plurals leads to confusion with its legitimate use to signal possession.    If you use "cow's" for multiple cows, how are you going to signal that you're talking about the tracks of one cow?  Or the tracks of many cows?  Already I'm seeing some inexperienced writers reverse the correct usage, and use the apostrophe in plurals and then leave it off in possessives. 

Confusing readers this way is not good.  Moreover, misuse of the apostrophe is cited often by editors, experienced readers, and successful writers as a sign of poor education and poor writing.

NEVER use an apostrophe in plurals of nouns.  If dealing with symbols that cannot be converted to words, consult a good resource or editor.   There's often another way.  Sometimes just a lower-case "s" or "es" is enough, without the apostrophe.

NEVER use an apostrophe with a possessive pronoun, including "its."

ALWAYS use apostrophes correctly to signal possession:  before the "s" for singular, and after it for plurals that end in "s."  The old-style plurals that don't end in "s" (such as men, women, etc.) need apostrophe and an "s".  (The horse's hoof; the horses' hooves.   The man's hat; the men's hats.) 

ALWAYS use apostrophes correctly to signal contraction in verbs (put the apostrophe in the right place, and consider the formality/informality of the occasion.  Sometimes "do not" is better than "don't" and vice versa.  Avoid complex contractions unless it's necessary for a dialect: "shouldn't've" is overdoing it even though we talk like that sometimes.  In print, it forces the reader to look twice.)

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

The Semi-colon

Here beginneth the second lesson in punctuation: the Semi-colon

It's much simpler than the apostrophe, really it is.  But it needs to be considered in the context of other possibilities and that may seem complicated.   It's not.

Think for a moment of a ball rolling down a ramp, and then coming to a stop at a barrier.  If the sentence is that ball, it runs straight ahead down the ramp and stops when it bumps into a full stop: a period.

"I got up this morning." 

You can write (rather jerkily) using nothing but short sentences, short ramps one after another:  "I got up this morning.  That was my first mistake."

If the ball, instead of rolling smoothly down a straight ramp, instead rolls down stairs with a landing in the middle, where it changes direction, it will bounce off the walls before going on down and there will be some bumps on the way.  The two half-flights of stairs are complete--they have a top, bottom, and all the steps in between.   As a sentence this model defines the combination of two complete thoughts squeezed into one sentence--where each part could be a short sentence.  The bumps on the way are where you need commas.  The bouncing on the wall of the landing is where you need either a conjunction, a semi-colon, or (in extreme cases) a colon.

"I got up this morning and that was my first mistake."   The same two complete thoughts, grammatically complete sentences, joined by a conjunction.   It feels easy to read, easy to understand; it's uncompressed, relaxed, open.  When you want to slow down or relax a passage, the conjunction is your friend.  But too many of them in a row (like too many short straight "ramp" sentences in a row" feel amateurish.  Once small children learn they can string thoughts together, they talk like that "I went to the zoo and I saw a tiger and I had an ice cream and I saw ducks and geese and I had a hot dog and..."    What we have here is not really the staircase with its landing, but a curving slide that can (if you're not careful) go on forever.

"I got up this morning; that was my first mistake."    Here's the semi-colon.   It signals the reader to expect a complete clause--subject, predicate--on each side of the semicolon, but it tells the reader (whether reading aloud or silently) not to stop...to leap over the semi-colon and connect the meaning of the second part to the first.   It's the equivalent, in driving, to a rolling stop.   Thus it is faster to read, it feels more compressed, more logical, even (depending on the rest of the sentences so joined) a bit abrupt. 

With care in crafting the sentences in front of it and behind it, a semi-colon can also make the whole more formal, less formal, more compressed, or more rhythmic.  It gives the writer flexibility in sentence length, tone, compression/extension, pacing...all good things to have.  Like any other tool in the writer's toolbox, it can be overused--but it's essential.