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Column - Be careful when 'sprinkling' apostrophes

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When will people learn that apostrophes are not salt-and-pepper?

These days, too many people sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly to "season" their sentences. Other writers seem to think they are decorative squiggles, like tree ornaments, that somehow liven up a word or two.

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As most of my loyal readers know, misplaced apostrophes are my biggest pet peeve, right up there with wobbly tables. During the last three decades, I've written at least five columns about apostrophe abuse. Some years ago, I decided the ones who should learn how to use apostrophes correctly won't change their ways. Most of them will just keep using their old salt-and-pepper style of punctuation. Why should I or anyone else try to hold back this rushing tide of willful, stubborn, incorrect usage? Why write about it?

Well, sorry, I've changed my mind. That's because more and more people - not just stubborn abusers - are taking apostrophe abuse to a new low. There is an alarming increase of disregard not only for punctuation but spelling, too. Now and then, we all make grammatical and spelling errors, of course, but there are people who consistently, again and again, make the same errors.

The latest fad (dare we hope it's a passing fad?) is to sprinkle an apostrophe before the final s on a simple plural word. Somewhere along the line, too many people acquired the idea an apostrophe is needed to make a singular noun into a plural noun. While editing, I see it all the time, including on press releases written by those who are supposed to be professional communicators.

Here is an example:

Incorrect: "The book's are now on sale."

Correct: "The books are now on sale."

It might help to remember what should seem obvious. The word "book" is singular, meaning only one book. The word "books" is plural, meaning more than one book. The only time you need to place an apostrophe above either one ("book" or "books") is when you want that word to have a possessive meaning, such as in the following two examples:

1. "The book's cover is red." (one book, possessive)

2. "The books' covers are red." (more than one book, possessive)

To make a single noun ("book") possessive, place the apostrophe just before the final s, as in example 1.

To make a plural noun ("books") possessive, put the apostrophe after the final s, as in example 2.

There is an exception, however. Sometimes an apostrophe can take the place of the missing word "is" in a sentence. Two examples: "The book's for sale," meaning "The book IS for sale." Or, "It's nice weather," meaning "It IS nice weather."

Generally speaking, most abusers use an apostrophe when it's NOT needed and leave it out when it IS needed.

It's too bad English teachers are so often blamed for the abuses of written language. My hunch is that students did learn the rules in class, then almost purposely forgot them after that class bell rang, figuring their superduper computers will be able to do all their spelling and punctuation for them.

The misused apostrophe is just one example of the adulteration of written language.

We should care about our precious language and its rules. We should be concerned when it is abused because if this blithe disregard keeps going from bad to worse, someday, down along the road, people might well have difficulty understanding one another, leading to serious misunderstandings, if not major communication breakdowns.

To learn how that can happen - in its most sinister form - read George Orwell's classic novel 1984.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at dennisdalman@jetup.net.

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