Category Archives: Language and Editing

Everyone Gets a ‘Trophe

No other punctuation mark gets this much abuse—and I have a radical proposition to end it all

I expect it in Chinese restaurants, cheerfully and nonjudgmentally.

Special: Wing’s 10 for $5

Almost anywhere else, it makes me wince.

The Smith’s would like to invite you to their house party Saturday. Please bring appetizer’s or drink’s to share.

At my children’s schools, it makes me want scream, “Who’s in charge here?—or else slam a hardbound copy of The Chicago Manual of Style down on the principal’s desk.

School trip to Six Flag’s on Friday. Don’t forget permission slip’s and snack’s. Lunch is provided, $60 per student, cash only, no check’s.

Yes, checks. I’m checking to see who let you get through school without learning the proper—and improper—uses of the apostrophe.

Every grammar blog known to Google has covered this topic (and headlined the post with some variation of “Apostrophe Catastrophe”).

They all cover the basics, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Apostrophes have two common uses: (1) to show possession, and (2) to stand in for missing letters, as in contractions. A third, less-common use is to make plurals out of odd (and therefore possibly confusing) constructions, especially lower-case letters appearing as just the letters themselves: Mind your p’s and q’s.

Next, the grammar bloggers address the most commonly confused words, starting with “its” and “it’s.” Hey, what happened here anyway? One is a contraction and one is a possessive, and they both wanted the apostrophe, so they got drunk and slugged it out. The contraction won. So “it’s” means “it is” (“It’s raining men”), while “its” shows possession (“The heart has a mind of its own”).

Back to the epidemic. In a nutshell, these days I am seeing more rogue apostrophes then I can ever remember. Most of them are apostrophes stuck senselessly into a plural noun (Steak’s! Chop’s! The best burger’s in town!). Sometimes they are the disastrous results of someone not being sure if a word is plural, possessive, or both (Ladie’s Night–$5 drink specials!) They typically appear in store signs and event posters, but also almost anywhere else where a punctuation illiterate is left alone to mangle the English language: company memos, school fliers, e-mails from the soccer club president. And yes, even in newspapers and magazines. Yike’s! (Haha … just trying to be cute.)

At this point, I’m thinking that Chinese restaurants should start suing the other perpetrators for plagiarism.

The apostrophe misuse has gotten so bad—and the prospects for reeducation so dismal—that I have come up with a radical solution to end the madness once and for all.

For background, consider what has happened to the period (and the question mark, for that matter). Unless you’re old enough to remember FDR and have never received an e-mail or text message, you’re probably aware that use of punctuation to show that a sentence actually has ended is becoming more and more optional—so much so that even The New York Times noticed and wrote a story about it. And even without periods and question marks to guide them, the kids understand just fine. And not just the kids—old guys like me, too. Consider this series of three texts I received a couple of years ago from an on-again, off-again girlfriend who had decided, early one evening, that she wanted to see me again:

Hello Stephen

How are you

Where are you

I needed no punctuation to grasp the nuances of each text—in fact, they might have been clearer without the periods and question marks. The first text was an olive branch, the second a half-statement, half-question to acknowledge that she wondered how I was doing, the third a more direct question asking if I might be free that evening. Fill in your own unpunctuated texts—I’m sure you have an iPhone full of them

So … is it possible that we can take a page from the Great Period Throwaway, and just do without apostrophes altogether?

I know, language preservationists are supposed to run screaming from radical rule changes. But just think how much cleaner the world of print will look without all those wince-inducing rogue apostrophes mucking it up! And once we eliminate the apostrophe from our keypads, will we really miss the ones that we used to think were essential? I think not.

Some words will retreat comfortably from possessive nouns to adjectives, like Mothers Day and Mets game and Beatles drummer. And consider the many living examples of dropped apostrophes, like Proctors Theatre and the R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant: In the first example, when the arts organization removed the punctuation years ago, it merely established that the question of possession was not important; in the second example, possession is still understood perfectly. As for contractions, I cant and probably wont think of any that we couldnt get used to. And if you do not like them unpunctuated, you are still free to spell them out.

I pulled a few random phrases from the news just to see how they would read without apostrophes: Trumps tax returns, Trumps Russia connections, Trumps early-morning tweetstorms, Trumps alternate reality … Hmmm … from where I sit, all of these are much easier to comprehend than anything the man actually says.

But seriously, it will make life (and writing and reading) so much easier. We can stop fussing about the many unnecessary uses we have for apostrophes (Back in the 90s, I once gave my two weeks notice after my boss told me to mind my Ps and Qs.) Did you notice all three examples of the dropped apostrophe? And if not, could it be that they didn’t matter?

Years ago, when my sister lived in North East, Pennsylvania, she took me to a place called Larry Youngs Fruit Farm. Of course the missing apostrophe on the sign bothered me—until my sister informed me that the farmer’s name was Larry Youngs. But it still bothered me—Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe after the s, then?

To see if other people actually cared about such things, I stood outside the door and asked customers, as they were leaving, if they were bothered by the lack of punctuation in the sign. Their reaction was unanimous, paraphrased here: I don’t care about punctuation, I just wanted the damn cherries!

OK, I didn’t really do that, but you get the point.

One more thing about the case we fret about the most: its vs. it’s. From now on, it’s just its—And everyone will understand which one you mean from the context (just like they do when you’re speaking). And you will never have to worry about which one gets the apostrophe again. Ever.

Best of all, the horror of rogue apostrophes will become a thing of the past.

Then again, Chinese restaurants probably will not get the memo. So we can still look forward to the specials on wing’s.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

 

Let’s Get Serial

It has never occurred to me to start a cocktail-party conversation with Oxford commas or dangling participles or split infinitives. If someone else brings them up, I’m happy to participate, but generally those are topics for newsrooms and annual conventions of the American Copy Editors Society. I’ve seldom if ever heard grammar and style discussed over dinner, and I’m not aware of the Oxford comma ever making the news …

Until now! Just when you thought that subliterate tweets had taken over American discourse for good, a contentious grammar issue actually made headlines in March when Maine milk-truck drivers won $10 million in back pay thanks to the absence of an Oxford comma in their employer’s overtime guidelines.

Oakhurst Dairy’s official literature spelled out that the following activities do not merit overtime pay: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The so-called “Oxford” comma, or “serial” comma (I’ve also heard “terminal”), is the comma separating the last two parallel items in a series of three or more. For example: Her dress was red, white, and blue. That last comma is the Oxford comma, used by writers and editors who adhere to Chicago Style, or who simply swear by its absolute clarity.

Now if you adhere to AP Style, or you believe that the directive to always insert the Oxford comma is unnecessary, even silly, then you would write the sentence this way: Her dress was red, white and blue.

Oakhurst Dairy lost its challenge to the overtime-pay lawsuit because there was no comma after “shipment,” thus joining “shipment” and “distribution” into a single item as objects of “packing for.” The distribution of products (the activity at issue in the suit) was not listed as exempt from overtime pay; only “packing for shipment and distribution” was. So a missing comma cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million, and rightfully so. But the absent Oxford comma is only half the problem; there’s another issue in the sentence that makes the ruling a grammatical slam-dunk. I’ll come back to that.

***

The debate over the Oxford comma has raged for god knows how long (and even has inspired satirical treatment by The Onion), although if (like me) you were taught by your English teachers that the serial comma was unnecessary, or (like me) you worked at newspapers where AP Style ruled, you might not have noticed. Adherents of the Oxford comma like to use rather extreme examples to prove its necessity:

I’d like to thank my parents, Gloria Steinem and Jesus Christ.

Now without an Oxford comma, you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

The AP Style camp would say that’s merely an exception that proves the rule: as with anything else, when there’s a clarity problem, recast the sentence. I’d like to thank Gloria Steinem, Jesus Christ and my parents.

I’ve come around to the Chicago view on this issue, in part because using the Oxford comma almost never creates a clarity problem (the examples that Oxford haters give in response to the above are far less likely to come up), and in part because of something I’ve learned over the years in training editors. Many perfectly literate editors are never going to be style and grammar geeks; in other words, while they’re capable of memorizing a rule and generally using good editorial judgment, they’re not going to obsess over the finer points of style, or learn more about grammar than they think they need to, or notice an exception to a rule they’ve learned—it’s easiest to simply follow the rule every time.

So, if your junior editors need a rule on serial commas that they can apply every time and almost never be wrong, would you teach them AP or Chicago? Game, set, and match.

Having said all that, I have noticed lately a more serious issue involving series, a form of grammar abuse that seems to be getting past editors with increasing regularity: the false series. And while the necessity (or not) of the Oxford comma remains amusingly debatable, the increasing failure to understand and apply parallelism is no laughing matter.

Parallelism in writing involves balancing like items (nouns with nouns, infinitives with infinitives, participles with participles, etc.) to promote clarity, prevent awkwardness, and improve readability. Sometimes the failure to use parallel structure is not wrong, but also not pleasing: I enjoy hiking, watching movies, good books, and when my partner surprises me with flowers.

But sometimes it is just plain grammatically incorrect, as with many false series:

He stole a soda, a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In this example, “soda” and “bag of chips” and parallel nouns identifying what he stole, but the last clause introduces a new predicate and just doesn’t work with the series; the reader will trip over “and” when a third noun does not appear. The fix is to insert “and” between the two parallel items:

He stole a soda and a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In the next example, I deliberately misapply AP Style to enhance the point:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts and I should always make sure no one was hiding in the store.

The first three elements of this series are parallel: “lock,” “sweep,” and “tally” are verbs forming infinitive clauses with “the instructions were to.” Again, the “and” signals a fourth parallel item and does not prepare the reader for the wild left turn. One fix is to reduce the series to three items, and recast the final clause slightly:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, and tally the receipts, and I also knew to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

But a better solution is to simply make the last clause parallel:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts, and check to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

Now, back to Oakhurst Dairy.

(Here’s the contentious clause again: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”)

If the company’s lawyers wanted to argue that the Oxford comma was optional and would not change the meaning of the guideline, they would still have a grammatical problem on their hands: “distribution” is not parallel with “canning, processing, preserving,” etc., which are gerund forms of verbs functioning as nouns. “Distribution” would have to be “distributing” to continue the series. Without the comma or the gerund form, “packing for shipment or distribution” makes grammatical sense only as a single concept.

There. I have written almost 1,200 words on series and Oxford commas, I have lost most of my readers, and I have decided to move on. Did you see what Trump just tweeted?

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

Concerning “Concerning”

When the doctor told me that something in my x-ray was “concerning,” I was alarmed.

My distress was not over my dislocated shoulder, which I somehow knew would heal just fine.

It was my reaction to his use of the word concerning as an adjective, which I had seldom if ever heard before, and which had something akin to a nails-on-chalkboard effect on my ears.

“You don’t use concerning that way,” I fumed silently as the doctor explained the shoulder’s ball-and-socket mechanics. To me, concerning was a perfectly useful preposition meaning “regarding” or “with respect to” or “on the subject of.” It was not a proper substitution for more familiar adjectives such as “alarming” or “disturbing” or “troubling.”

Not only did I soon learn that my position on concerning was mostly indefensible; I also began to hear it used as an adjective on a regular basis.

Searches have found the word used as an adjective in literature going back at least to the 1700s. It was not used commonly in American English until it began to take off in the late 1980s, but it is used commonly now, and it stands as yet another example of the fluidity of language over time. It also occupies a slightly different niche than some of its synonyms because it has a milder connotation (compare to alarming). Besides, several of those synonyms—distressing, disturbing, upsetting—are formed in the same way, so there is no justification for rejecting the similar usage of concerning.

Well, maybe one. It is a very specific case, but an important one if, like me, you strive above all for clarity, especially in writing. I always advocate recasting a sentence that is likely to confuse the reader momentarily, and that can happen with concerning precisely because of its common use as a preposition. For example, if we read “The police report was concerning,” we may initially think there is more coming, specifically, the subject of the report.

In that case, I would suggest changing concerning to troubling. I hate tripping up readers, which also is why I separate most multiple subject clauses with commas to keep the reader from momentarily mistaking the second subject for an object. (“The doctor fixed my shoulder and my brain learned to accept concerning as an adjective.”) But that’s a topic for another day.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon