Do’s and Don’ts for Apostrophes

Instant Quiz:

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer. 

Joan said “that our reservation was for six o’clock.”

____________________________________________________________

Did today’s heading look odd to you? I put an apostrophe into do’s, which isn’t possessive. My reason is that apostrophes (contrary to what your teachers might have told you) are sometimes used for plurals: Mind your p’s and q’s. Your 4’s sometimes look like 9’s. I moved to Florida in the 1970’s. And you probably heard your mother say “If if’s and but’s were candy and nuts….” (Mine did!)

Suppose you wrote a note to a co-worker saying, “I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your is.” You meant that your co-worker forgets the dot on the “i.” But it looks like you wrote the word is.

So you’d use an apostrophe, like this:

I have trouble reading your handwriting because sometimes you forget to dot your i’s.  CORRECT

Here are a few more examples:

I’m revising my essay because I used too many and’s. CORRECT

My computer keyboard sticks when I try to type 2’s and 9’s. CORRECT

Gail earned straight A’s in college. CORRECT

Is everybody clear that I’m NOT giving you permission to write Smith’s when you mean the whole Smith family? They’re the Smiths.

The Smiths sent us a postcard from Hawaii. CORRECT

Let’s go back to do’s and don’ts. There have been heated arguments about the apostrophe in do’s. If you’re trying to be consistent, you’ll also insert it into don’ts, and then you have this odd construction: do’s and don’t’s. But if you omit the apostrophe, the result is just as odd: dos and don’ts. How do you settle this?

The answer is that you do whatever works for you (or, if you’re writing professionally, whatever your organization’s style guide tells you to do). Rules are guidelines. They’re supposed to facilitate writing and reading, not get in the way. I like do’s and don’ts, and that’s what I use.

(I just did some research and learned that the Macmillan Dictionary uses the apostrophe in do’s, but the Oxford Manual of Style omits it.)

Earlier you might have noticed that I inserted an apostrophe into 1970’s (“I moved to Florida in the 1970’s”). That apostrophe is gradually disappearing – some style guides still use it, while others don’t.

I can hear someone out there moaning that the sky is falling, and there are no rules anymore, and….

Guess what: language rules have always been in flux. Do some research about punctuation rules from three or four centuries ago: you’ll probably have a coronary when you see how much they’ve changed! It’s like traffic laws. We need to know the rules that apply here and now. (In Florida you can make a right turn at a red light – but don’t try that in Manhattan!)

candy and nuts

_________________________________________________________

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Use quotation marks only when you’ve written down exactly what the person said. Don’t use quotation marks for indirect statements.

Joan said, “Our reservation is for six o’clock.” CORRECT

Joan said that our reservation was for six o’clock.  CORRECT  (Indirect statement)

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

Share

Is Fishes Correct?

A friend and his son visited an aquarium recently and came home with a grammar question: Is fishes correct?

Answer: Sometimes.

Language is an amazingly efficient communication tool. Often a single well-chosen word can convey a wealth of information. Fishes is a good example, telling you that a person is talking about several species grouped together.

If you have a tank of goldfish, you would say, “I fed my fish this morning.” But if you have blue gouramis, blind cavefish, and zebra fish (as we once did), you would say, “I fed my fishes this morning.”

It’s the same with deer. My younger sister often sees white-tailed deer in the back yard of her rural Massachusetts home. But if she lived in, say, Montana, she might see both white-tailed deer and mule deer in her back yard. In that case (being my sister and therefore a person who takes usage seriously), she would say, “I saw several deers today.”

This usage explains why you sometimes hear or read the word peoples. When you’re grouping human beings together, they’re simply called people:

Many people in the United States worry about global warming.

But when you’re talking about several ethnic groups, use peoples:

Anthropologists study the peoples of the world.

King George VI used people this way in a famous remark he made during World War II. Someone in a cheering crowd called out to him, “Thank God for a good King.” His reply, “Thank God for a good people,” shows that he could have been an excellent English teacher as well as a very effective king. Good for him.

A portrait of King George VI

                                        King George VI

Share

Verbing

Yesterday I read a sentence – well, part of a sentence – that thrilled me. It’s from “We’re Having The Wrong Debate About Pronouns” by Ben Freeland:

It’s a linguistic shortcoming that blinkers our senses and truncates our spiritual epiphanies.

I love (that’s an understatement!) “blinkers our senses.” I can see those blinkers. (I’m less thrilled with “truncates our spiritual epiphanies” – I would have used shrivels.)

But when I showed the sentence to a friend, she sniffed and said one word: “verbing.” 

Ah, verbing. It means changing a noun (or another part of speech) into a verb. Blinkers are things. You can’t blinker – or so the argument goes. Many people positively froth when they encounter a word that has moved from one grammatical category to another.

Oops! I just did it myself. Froth is a thing. You can’t froth – or can you?

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Whether you enjoy verbing or hate it, there’s no getting away from it. Yesterday I encountered another example: My friend Ellen Holder emailed me a question about a man who “white-knuckled” the steering wheel as he was driving. Again, I loved it – but I know many people who would have shuddered.

And I’m apt to shudder myself at some examples of verbing. Sometimes the language already has a perfectly good verb, and the newcomer sounds pompous. For example, I never use impact as a verb. “The news impacted the stock market” – yuk. I would say that the stock market rose or the stock market fell when it heard the news.

And I gripe when contact shows up in police reports. Did the officer visit the person? Phone? Text? Send an email? Tape a note to the door? In a criminal case, it’s important to be specific.

So how do we sort this all out? Some thoughts:

  • All languages change over time.
  • English lends itself to verbing because we have so few conjugations and declensions. It’s super-easy to move flower (a noun) into the verb category: You don’t have to add an ending.
  • Some expressions that seem fresh and new (“blinkers our senses”) have actually been around for a long time. I just looked up the history of blinkers. It was first used as a verb – hold on to your hat – in a book published in 1865.

Here’s the bottom line: some new words and usages work very well, while others are clumsy or vague. What’s really important is to know the difference

A horse with blinkers

Share

There’s No There There

Describing Oakland, California, where she grew up, Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” It’s a great quotation that I’d forgotten until my husband used it yesterday to describe a particularly unimpressive political candidate.

Today we’re talking about sentences that start with there (and its close relative here). Here are a couple of guidelines:

  • Think twice before starting a sentence with there is or there are (unless you’re Gertrude Stein!). Yes, you can start sentences this way. (I do it myself.) But do make sure that’s what you want to do. There is/there are don’t give your readers anything interesting to look at or think about. There’s no power there. (Oops!)
  • Learn the subject-verb agreement rule that governs there is/there are sentences. Here’s an easy way (oops again!) to make sure you get these sentences right: Switch them around in your head (sort of like adding a column of numbers from the bottom to the top to double-check your answer).

Let’s try a few of these.

  1. There’s two bills and a letter on the table for you.

Reverse it:  Two bills and a letter are there.

There are two bills and a letter on the table for you.

2, Here goes nothing.

Reverse it: Nothing goes here.

Here goes nothing.

3. There are two problems with this report.

Reverse it: Two problems are there.

There are two problems with this report.  CORRECT

4. There’s no reason to make errors with these sentences.

Reverse it: No reason is there.

 There’s no reason to make errors with these sentences. (For real!)  CORRECT

There’s no there there. CORRECT! Gertrude Stein certainly knew her subject-verb agreement rules, didn’t she?

Gertrude Stein

Share

Helen Keller

I just came across a wonderful New Yorker article about Helen Keller, the deaf-and-blind humanitarian. Of course I stopped what I was doing to read it. I was sure there’d be nothing new for me in the article – I’ve been fascinated by Keller all my life, and I’ve read the major biographies – but I plunged in anyway.

Turns out I was wrong. What I learned from reading it is that Keller (who died in 1968) was a postmodernist.

Keller was an amazing woman – and a controversial one. She had a goody-goody image that belied the tough woman she really was. (One example: she was a tireless crusader for eyedrops to be routinely given to infants to prevent syphilis-related blindness.)

Keller was most famous as a writer. She had a huge audience that inevitably included a number of critics and doubters. Everything she wrote, the skeptics said, was derivative. Because she was blind and deaf, her life experience was too limited to have generated the vivid descriptions and provocative ideas that filled her books.

If you’re a student of philosophy, you can hear an echo of Plato’s Phaedrus – the old speech vs. writing argument – in the complaints of those critics. Writing is bad because it’s secondhand and derivative. Only what we experience firsthand, in the present moment, is real.

It’s extremely unlike that Keller ever read anything by James Hillman or Jacques Derrida, but she firmly aligned themselves with them. “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction,” she said. For Keller, history was “but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth.”

Cynthia Ozick, author of the Keller article, adds, “Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture?” Ozick reminds us that much of her knowledge comes not from our senses but from collective memory, heritage, and literature.

You – reading this – aspire to write. What that means is that you yearn to fly (just as Keller did when she figured out how to experience a world she’d never seen or heard). Imagination is the lens through which we experience life. We need to resist the forces that want to tie us down to the concrete reality of the here-and-now.

Today – right now – take the time to fly for a minute or two. And when it’s time to return to Earth, keep your wings handy. You’ll need them the next time you sit down to write.

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan

Share

Empty Words

This is a follow-up to my previous post about redundant words. Today I’m going to alert you to some unnecessary words that can creep into your writing and clog your sentences.

But first I want to issue a warning. Eliminating empty words is a key to good writing – but it’s not the only one.

If you (like me) often look at writing guides, you’ll see that they’re full of warnings about redundancies like “Jewish rabbi” (of course the rabbi is Jewish!) and “in the event that” (if works just as well). Sometimes it seems that redundancy is the only problem that writers should watch for.

Not true! Crisp, powerful sentences are only one of the keys to effective writing. You also need logic, clarity, and flow – and attaining those qualities isn’t easy.

It’s fun to rewrite an absurd sentence like “The fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted” (“My pen is out of ink”). It’s a lot harder to write a sentence that impresses you with its power.

OK – back to empty words!

Really, very, absolutely – There’s no difference between an interesting book and a really interesting book – or between a wonderful movie and an absolutely wonderful movie.

Quite, rather, somewhat – I hate these words. “Mr. Jeffries is rather nice.” He either is or he isn’t! Ditch “rather.”

Currently – There’s no difference between “I currently live in Florida” and “I live in Florida.”

Existing – Usually unnecessary. “Existing palms may be attacked by the palmetto weevil.” If the trees didn’t exist, the weevils couldn’t attack them!

Actually, literally – Usually unnecessary.

You should also watch for unneeded announcements: In my opinion, I am going to discuss, I believe, It’s clear that, Needless to say. Here’s my favorite example: someone will say, “Can I ask a question?” My invariable response is, “You just did!”

Here are two more examples of wording you usually don’t need:

Whereupon (“He fell to the floor, whereupon I called 911.” I would write, “When he fell to the floor, I called 911.”)

Proceeded to (“After my friends left, I proceeded to clear the dishes and put away the snacks.” My version: “After my friends left, I cleared the dishes and put away the snacks.”)

A fuel tank on empty

Share

Redundant…or Not?

Suppose you were an editor. Would you change anything in this sentence?

I talked to three different people on the phone before I found someone who could answer my question.

I would delete “different.” If you talked to three people, of course they were different! Unnecessary words clog sentences, robbing them of vigor and power. “Omit needless words” is one of Strunk & White’s most important rules. 

But sometimes you should ignore that rule. And – truth to tell – you have to ignore that rule many times every day. Redundancy and repetition are built into our language, for good reasons. The trick is to know when to use a tight, spare sentence and when to allow some repetition.

What – for example – would you do with this sentence?

He takes his daughter to day care on Mondays and Fridays.

I like it just the way it is, and I wouldn’t change anything. But – technically speaking – it’s redundant because it tells you three times that there’s one person (he, takes, his – all singular). And it tells you twice that he’s male (he, his).

If you’re thinking that you have to say his daughter – that’s not true. Finnish doesn’t have gender pronouns!

The English language wants that redundancy (he takes his). And many of our everyday sentences have similar hidden redundancies. Why?

Here’s the reason. We don’t always speak and read in perfect conditions. Someone nearby is streaming music. A thunderstorm, or loud traffic, or a conversation at the next table is creating background noise. We’re distracted by something, or the handwriting is bad, or we’re tired. Maybe there’s a bad phone connection. All those issues can interfere with a spoken or written message. A little extra repetition ensures that you won’t miss anything.

When you think about it, it’s amazing how many messages get through perfectly. And we can thank our language for that.

So – when is redundancy ok, and when should we get rid of it?

There’s no absolute answer – but I have a suggestion: look for empty words that can often be deleted from sentences: different people, respective , end result, final decision, exact same, existing – and so on. In my next post I’ll give you more examples.

But what about phrases like climb up, cut out, and explain about? And can you say that Joan and Jim were doing the cha cha together? I would probably leave those extra words in for emphasis.

Can you disagree? Of course. Sometimes I can’t make up my mind whether to remove a word or leave it in. What I do is to try it both ways and see which I like better.

What’s important is that you’re thinking about your word choices. That extra step automatically sets you apart from most people – and moves you closer to your goal of becoming an exceptional writer. It’s well worth the small extra effort!

frustrated man on the phone

Share

The Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And which came first –  English or English grammar?

Before I offer an answer, I’m going to talk about…ballroom dancing. I own an instructional video about foxtrot (my favorite dance!) done by Stephen Hillier, one of the world’s best ballroom dancers.

Two points that Hillier makes in the video have stuck in my head (and I think have relevance to our question about language vs. grammar).

Like all serious ballroom dancers, I’ve worked my way through the prescribed curriculum. One of the hardest steps is called a heel turn. Every woman who does international foxtrot struggles with it.

But according to Hillier, there is no heel turn. 

What he means is that nobody set out to invent a heel turn. It came about all by itself on the dance floor when couples were searching for a way to move from one particular spot on the floor to another. It worked so well that the couples who figured it out began showing it to other couples. Now all female ballroom dancers learn it.

Another surprise was learning how the ballroom curriculum originated. According to Hillier, some early ballroom enthusiasts decided they needed to codify the steps they were doing. Their solution was to hold a ballroom competition. The steps done by the couple who won provided the foundation for the curriculum.

So – what came first, the technique or the dance? The dance.

* * * * * *

Back to English. I’ve been thinking about an intriguing question I saw online. In the sentence below, is tall an adjective – or an adverb?

Trees grow tall in this forest.

Several dictionaries I checked listed “tall” only as an adjective. So what do we do with this sentence? Trees really do grow. If they can grow “thickly” (an adverb) why can’t they grow “tall”?

Lo and behold, I eventually found a source that does list tall as an adverb: The American Heritage Dictionary (which happens to be my favorite dictionary!).

* * * * * *

If you’ve hung in so far, thank you! Thank you!

Here’s the point I’ve been leading up to: Language always comes first. If I may paraphrase Stephen Hillier, there is no grammar. We have words and sentences. Someone comes along and tries to codify them.

In the small world of ballroom dancing, that organizational system works out well. But in the much larger realm of language, some elements resist our efforts to pin them down – the word tall, for example, which most dictionaries don’t list as an adverb even though it can clearly act as one.

Which came first – language or grammar? – is an interesting question. But we should be asking another question; Which is more important: language or grammar?

chick and egg

Share

Make Your Sentences Move!

If you want to be a successful author, you need to write powerful sentences. Today I’m going to offer a simple strategy for writing sentences that move. Here it is: strip away words that slow down the sentence.

Below is a list of heavy, plodding words that tend to sneak into sentences. You think you’re building power when you use them, but often the opposite happens: your sentence slows down.

Here’s the list: all at once, began to, eventually, immediately, just then, might, proceeded to, started to, suddenly, then

Please note that I’m not warning you against using them. (I sometimes use them myself!) What I’m asking is that you stop and think first. Read the sentence both ways – with the questionable word or expression, and then without it. Which version sounds better? And are there other changes you can make?

Taking that extra step immediately sets you apart for the average writer. Try it!

Here are some examples:

He saw Janey and proceeded to scoop her up in his arms.

The moment he saw Janey, he scooped her up in his arms.  BETTER

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Then Susan heard banging.

The dog ran to the door, barking furiously. Susan heard banging.  BETTER

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms all at once.

As she fumbled with the doorknob, the packages tumbled from her arms.  BETTER

Share

All about Prepositions

[Today’s guest writer is my friend Kelly Pomeroy. I enjoyed a recent exchange of ideas with Kelly so much that I asked her to do a guest post.]

 We’ve often heard that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. This arbitrary rule may have originated with 17th Century British author John Dryden, who greatly admired Latin – a language which did not provide for prepositions at the ends of clauses – and tried to apply its rules to English.

This thinking was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th Century British Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar who undertook to write a comprehensive grammar of English. He acknowledged that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition was in fact what people were doing, and that it served quite well. But perhaps he was deferring to Dryden when he added that “the placing of the Preposition before the Relative [its object] is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”

But is it really more graceful to say “that’s the answer for which I’m looking” than “that’s the answer I’m looking for”?  No, it’s clumsy and odd-sounding.

Substitute the sentence “that’s not what I’m looking for” and there’s no way you can even rearrange it and still have passable English. “That’s not that for which I’m looking”? Try that one out if you want to receive some really odd looks.

Good English sounds natural, not contorted or “hypercorrect.” Competent writers know that and do not try to adhere to phony rules that serve only to interrupt the flow of their words.

P.S. Here are some specific examples of poor English written by people who should know better:

NASA 8/9/17:  “The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour.”

Vice News 11/19/16:  It’s one of many economic challenges with which the government has been unable to deal….

MidSouth Week in Review 5/16/2017 “There is an app called ‘Moodies’, which can already tell in which mood you are.”

Share