America's apostrophe catastrophe

What's with the growing misuse of that puny piece of punctuation?

Published December 17, 2002 10:33PM (EST)

That's it. I'm at the end of my rope. Or, more appropriately, "my rope's end" -- because what I'm so worked up about is the growing misuse of that puny piece of punctuation called the apostrophe. The phenomenon is spreading so rapidly, it's practically, well, an apostrodemic.

You see the grammatical gaffes everywhere: on billboards, in movie ads, in grocery stores, on restaurant menus -- even in the hallowed pages of the New York Times. Just the other day, I saw a headline in the "paper of record" that read: "Saudis Seize Kuwaiti in Shooting of G.I.'s, Who Are Recovering." I couldn't help wondering: the shooting of the G.I.'s what? His jeep? His superior officer? Or perhaps it was in a part of his body too sensitive for a family newspaper to mention in print? And why "Are Recovering"? Why not "Is Recovering"? And if there was, in fact, more than one G.I. shot, why not say G.I.s? Why tag a gratuitous apostrophe onto the poor soldier? It's bad enough that he was shot; why add insult -- in the form of an unnecessary punctuation mark -- to his injury?

Now I really hate to make such a big stink about a little squiggle -- especially at a time when life-and-death matters like the march to war in Iraq, the murderous bombing in Kenya, and the disastrous oil spill off the coast of Spain cry out for our attention. But sometimes a small thing like this can have much bigger ramifications.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of the broken-windows theory of crime fighting, which holds that by fighting small quality-of-life crimes like graffiti and vandalism, police send a persuasive message that antisocial behavior, of any scale, will not be tolerated. In this case, putting an end to the chronic misplacement of apostrophes could eventually lead to a better-educated populace, a greater sense of harmony and order, more fuel-efficient cars, a slimmer, trimmer you, cleaner air, an end to the heartbreak of psoriasis, the cancellation of "The Bachelor," and, who knows, maybe even world peace.

OK. Putting an end to the scourge of punctuation abuse won't actually lead to any of those things. But it will lower my blood pressure and that of a few million other grammar scolds across the English-speaking world.

My long-simmering irritation over the apostrophe crisis finally reached a boil the other night while helping my 11-year-old daughter with her homework. She had written a short essay about her school camping trip. (I don't remember going on camping trips when I was in school, do you? I was lucky if my teachers let us stop memorizing Aristotle long enough to play a little Greek hopscotch now and then. But that's a rant for another column.) She had particularly enjoyed tackling one of those confidence-building ropes courses. Only she had written it as "rope's courses." An understandable mistake, for an 11-year-old. And don't bother writing to tell me about sentence fragments. You pick your grammar neurosis and I'll pick mine.

I gently brought the error to her attention, pointing out that she didn't need an apostrophe before the "s" since it was a plural noun.

Apparently the "rope's course" made her a bit too confident. She didn't take it very well. You'd think I had banned the WB from the house or expressed enthusiasm for some hopelessly passé boy band. "You're wrong, Mommy!" she cried. Even when I insisted that I wasn't, she remained unmoved. Then she played her trump card: "Well," she sniffed, "this is the way everyone does it here." And by "here," she didn't just mean her school. She meant her country. That hurt, carrying as it did the implication that my attachment to following quaint rules of grammar and punctuation was due to English not being my mother tongue. Brushing this aside, I started to trot out that venerable parental riposte, "Just because everyone is doing it doesn't make it right." But, finally, in the interest of family peace, I decided to quash my dissent and let her teacher deal with the matter. That's what they get the not-so-big bucks for, right?

Unfortunately, when Isabella got her paper back, the errant apostrophe had been allowed to go uncorrected. Her "see, I told you so" grin left me feeling like a chastised schoolgirl -- or the last horse-and-buggy driver in town. I had let one broken window go unfixed, and the looting was already starting.

Things only got worse the next morning when, while reading the New York Times, I came across not one, but two examples of apostrophes being put in the wrong place -- including one in a column by my hero, Paul Krugman. In writing about inherited wealth, the erudite Princeton professor made mention of "Today's imperial C.E.O.'s." Isabella's words echoed in my brain: "This is how everyone does it here."

Flummoxed, I got ahold of the New York Times' manual of style and, to my horror, discovered that the paper's rash of apostrophe errors had not been the result of sloppy copy-editing but a conscious executive decision to ignore the rules of proper punctuation.

That's when I decided to do something to stop the madness. It's time for regime change in apostrophe land. The good news is that vanquishing this enemy won't take congressional approval, a U.N. Security Council resolution, or permission from the Turks to use their airspace.

But neither can it be accomplished just by deploying a few unmanned apostrophe drones. No, this will require a coalition of journalists, copy editors, ad execs, teachers and people like you and me willing to draw a line (albeit a small, crescent-shaped one) in the compositional sand. To say, "This will not stand." And, fortunately, we already have the Associated Press and major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post on our side.

It's really not that complicated. To make a word plural, you simply add an "s" (ropes). To make the word possessive, you add an apostrophe and an "s" (rope's). To make a plural noun ending in "s" possessive, add only the apostrophe (ropes', states' rights, the girls' toys, etc.). Of course, apostrophes are also used for contractions such as can't, he's, won't and it's.

My biggest beef, though, is with the erroneous use of apostrophes to pluralize acronyms and abbreviations like CEOs, GIs and CDs. The rule is: If there is more than one CEO it's "CEOs" -- no apostrophe. If an individual CEO possesses something -- and you can bet the farm he does -- it's "CEO's," as in "the CEO's $125 million yacht, paid for by company shareholders." And if those execs jointly possess something, then it would be CEOs', as in "the targeted CEOs' lushly appointed offices were raided by SEC investigators at roughly the same time."

OK, students, class dismissed. And leave those apples -- or, more likely, brickbats -- in my e-mail in box.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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