I’m not a spelling phanatic, as my copy editor will attest. But, when it comes to punctuation, commas never give me pause, I don’t get emotional with exclamation points and I’m never flushed over colons.
I haven’t always been that way. I remember in grade school when my teacher was giving us a grammar lesson. She wrote on the blackboard “I saw a pretty girl” and asked us what punctuation mark we would use at the end of the sentence. I blurted out, “I’d make a dash after the pretty girl!” My teacher didn’t appreciate my sense of humor and I had to make a dash to the principal’s office.
Then there was the love letter I wrote to a girl in high school. I concluded that we didn’t have much of a future together when she returned it to me with spelling and punctuation corrections.
Over the years I’ve learned to sufficiently navigate through my written text so that my computer’s grammar checker only overheats occasionally. The only backlash at becoming somewhat punctuationally literate is that I can now nimbly spot a blooper a mile away. And by far the greatest grammatical villain is the apostrophe.
The most fertile ground for apostrophe blunders are the signs we see on the street and in stores. Try to spot the following gaffes…
n No Drink’s Allowed
n Copie’s Made Here
n Employee’s Only
n Lets Go Bulls!
n Professional Sign’s and Lettering
n Visitors Entrance
Then there was the sign by a park that said, “Giant Kid’s Playground.” I hung around just to see how big the giant kid was.
Oh, I suppose we could all live with those apostrophe slipups. But there are ones who have drawn a line in the sand over what they call apostrophe catastrophes. I personally have a friend who carries correction tape and a marker in her purse to make on-site corrections. She can handle a slight modification of a grocery store poster that says “Special on Banana’s,” but an inaccessible giant neon sign that flashes “Open Sunday’s” warrants a frank conversation with the manager. And don’t get her going on whether or not there should be an apostrophe in “Bakers Square.”
But it would appear that, in some countries, the apostrophe is actually under attack. For example, in Great Britain our little curly friend has been banned from street signs in such learned cities as Cambridge and Birmingham. City officials argue the use of apostrophes on street signs can lead to navigation mistakes, especially among emergency vehicles. It’s as if a giant eraser has descended upon merry old England and it is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.
This has prompted the rise of such organizations as the Apostrophe Protection Society, founded in 2001 to preserve this “much abused punctuation mark.” Then there’s the “Apostrophe Liberation Front,” whose cry is “Free the apostrophe!” You can join this group, but you must take a pledge promising never to misuse an apostrophe again.
Which leads us to a necessary lesson on the correct usage of the apostrophe. Believe me, I’ve investigated this matter and have discovered a voluminous tome of rules regarding it. So, to make things simple, I have reduced this simmering pot of grammatical bacilli down to one simple guideline:
When in doubt, don’t use an apostrophe.
This recommendation is based on the fact that there are more mistakes made using an apostrophe than not using one. So the odds are in your favor to go apostropheless and hope for the best. Either that or move to England.
• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. When the Ernie Banks statue was first revealed at Wrigley Field, it said “LETS PLAY TWO.” The apostrophe was later added, marking the singular monumental improvement for the Cubs in more than a century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.