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.
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
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
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?).
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
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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