The apostrophe has been giving writers trouble ever since it first appeared in English in the 16th century. But let’s not tear out our hair, let’s just bring about a new golden age in which we all know when to use an apostrophe—and when to leave it out. In that spirit, here are four of the most common places people unnecessarily insert apostrophes….
When the late William Safire wrote a New York Times column with a sentence that began “Another reason I laid low was…” his readers pounced. He then wrote another column to clarify correct and incorrect uses of lay and lie. Here’s a gross paraphrase, to give you one more way to sort those two verbs out.
Businesspeople speak it. Academics understand it. Johnny Depp steams it up.
English looks so hot today that it’s hard to imagine it as anything but the homecoming king of global languages. But it wasn’t always so. Curious about the true story of our language’s past, I found myself studying a few musty old texts and contemplating Latin for the first time since high school. That took me back. I soon realized that high school gave me a pretty good metaphor for what I was learning. For if, at turn of the 18th century, all European languages made up a high school, English was the kid with the thick glasses and the “Kick Me” sign on his back.
Whole books—lots of them—have been written about punctuation, and I believe it would take an entire semester to teach writers all the ins and outs of parentheses, the slips and slides of slashes, hyperbolic reactions of the language mavens to simple hyphens.
Karen Elizabeth Gordon defines punctuation rhetorically: “What is it, after all, but another way of cutting up cutting up time, creating or negating relationships, telling words when to take a rest, when to get on with their relentless stories, when to catch their breath?”
Here is a brief primer on this confounding subject.
Whether you’re a floodgates-open writer or a blocked writer, remember: the first draft is for just getting the ideas down. It’s in the revising that we sift through our words, letting only the most perfect specimens adorn the thread of syntax. These “secrets of sinfully good prose” will help you banish the potatoes and burnish the pearls.
Most of us also sense we missed some lessons along the way. But few of us can claim Joan Didion’s ear. It can take years to master the nuances of syntax, but it doesn’t take long to learn a few critical basics.
Imagine a paragraph as a musical score with punctuation marks as the rests that tell us when, and how long, to pause. Think of the comma as an eighth rest, the colon as a quarter rest, the semi-colon a half rest, and the period a whole rest.