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Informal Essay
 

Minding Your P'S And Q'S

I hereby call this meeting of Nit-pickers Anonymous to order. Today we will deal with the apostrophe, which you might say at first glance is as small a nit as can be picked. But let me suggest to you that even though the apostrophe is a tiny little mark on the page, it's use and misuse?? make that its use and misuse ? can lead to much head-scratching and irritation.


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You say this problem doesn't concern you. You say you know the in's and out's, the why's and wherefore's, of apostrophic etiquette. Or should that be ins, outs, whys, wherefores? Yes I think it should, although ins looks pretty strange on the page. And if ins looks strange, what about yeses and noes or hes and shes or ps and qs? Or should that be p's and q's? Yes, it should, according to the style I'm forced to follow at The Globe and Mail.

Caught your attention? I didn't think so. It's??right one, this time?? hard to interest anyone in apostrophes. They're easy, people say, or they don't matter. You'd've thought folks're smarter than that. It's thinking like this that has given us ads proclaiming "Potatoe's??49O(,/) a kilo" or signs warning "Auto's parked illegally may be tagged and towed" or rock critics plugging Guns 'n Roses. Nits these may be, but the world is lousy with them.

The problem with explaining apostrophes ? apart from the fact that nobody takes them too seriously ? is that they cannot be made systematic. We say Tom's and his the same way, and by that final s we mean the same thing, possession or belonging. But one carries an apostrophe and the other doesn't. The word his is the older form, and shows us the possessive as our ancestors used to deal with it. His is the genitive, or possessive, form of the pronoun he, and nouns in English that indicated this grammatical relationship took this form. The apostrophe was originally added to show that letter e had been left out of the genitive, but by the 18th century the apostrophe was being used in almost all possessives, even those without an e.

That may sound reasonably systematic, but the system is once again collapsing. That wouldn't be a bad thing if we could collapse in unison, and get rid of the apostrophe altogether and write dont instead of don't. But instead all is flux and we seem to be at sixes and sevens (six's and seven's? 6's and 7's? 6s and 7s?).


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Look at how we deal with periods of time. At The Globe, the decade of rampant materialism and Gorbymania was called the 1980s, but at The New York Times they say the 1980's. Since there is nothing omitted here and no suggestion of possession, I can't see why The Times carries on in this way. The reasoning of The Times' word columnist, William Safire, is that the apostrophe is used to form the plurals of numbers and letters, and so there.

Mr. Safire compares p's and q's, and the phrase dressed to the nine's, but to my mind the truth is not quite so self-evident. If one rule of writing is to keep punctuation to a minimum, then I think that 1980s, a natural looking plural, is much nicer than 1980's. Accept 1980's and you start referring to The Smith's or the delegation of MP's.

But what about p's and q's? The reason we don't mind them at The Globe is that individual letters are easier to see as individual letters, uncluttered by a neighbouring s. And here's where we get unsystematic. Turn those letters into capitals and suddenly they're As and Bs and MPs and VIPs, comprehensible and a little more elegant without the apostrophe. This kind of plural is made easier when you have left out the periods between letters, as is more and more the case with modern style.

But still there is confusion. For every St. Andrew's, there is a St. Andrews, where long use has banished the apostrophe and made the s part of the name. St. Catharines, St. Marys, St. Davids, Canada is full of slights to punctuation. The Canadian Teachers' Federation is doing its best to keep the apostrophe alive, but what can they do against the massed forces of the Canadian Swine Breeders Association and the Teamsters union? We are turning away from the apostrophe.

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