Friday, December 18, 2015

An apostrophic nightmare

'Do you ever find yourself doubting your certainties in life? I know, I know. That sounds like a contradiction doesn't it? But it's true. These days, I'm more in doubt about punctuation than I have ever been and that's saying something.

I think part of the problem is that so many others are so sure they are right about what's correct that when those very people contradict each other, I go into a spin.

Here's an example: in academic writing (which I teach), the rules (okay don't sigh now) say that you should only use a semi-colon to separate items in a list or between two independent clauses of equal weight when you don't want to use a conjunction such as 'and, but etc'. Now things seem to be different in narrative and creative writing. And there's the rub. I've read articles that say you can use a semi-colon instead of a comma when a comma is not enough of a break - like a half way pause between a full stop and a comma (for instance, maybe I could even have put one before 'like' in the line above).  That's wonderful - liberating even. I got quite excited when I thought I could sprinkle my sentences with semi-colons when I wanted something of a more pregnant pause than a dear little comma would give me. But....it doesn't always work. No, it doesn't, and I've seen semi-colon use go terribly wrong. I'm not even sure if I do it right myself anymore as I've had editors question my dramatic pauses a few times. So I'm going back to the rules as they apply to academic writing. I may be a wimp but at least they are clear.

Now the next problem comes with our feisty little apostrophe. Goodness, do people get upset about this beastie? I've had my wrist smacked no end of times for using apostrophes with abbreviated words  or 'anglicisms' that have now been accepted as words in their own right (pro's and con's are just an example, being originally Latin). Added to that, when I was at school, I was taught that decades such as the 1960s had an apostrophe before the 's'. I've left it out here as it seems this isn't done now unless it's a possessive form. In fact there were many 'old-fashioned' forms I had to unlearn when I left South Africa and started teaching in Europe. SA is always about fifty years behind - it's quite refreshing really, but it's given me a few headaches along with having to swallow a lot of humble pie.

But talking about possessives, there is one thing I'm quite certain of and that's the difference between its and it's - at least I thought I was. The first is (contrary to expectations) the possessive form of the pronoun it and the second is an abbreviation for 'it is / it has'. Yes? I am right, aren't I? Please tell me that's true! The problem is that I see an apostrophe used so often for the possessive form of it these days I'm doubting myself all over again - hence the title of this piece. I wouldn't mind except that people get so belligerent about these things and when two opposing sides believe they are right, where does that leave a doubting Dora like me?

So that's my problem. Punctuation is becoming an apostrophic nightmare. I know language evolves and all that. And I'm all for it, believe me! But could it just hold on until I've caught up?

Update: I've been reading this forum that shows I was not mad or even wrong by using apostrophes with plural dates at one time. Grammarian, Michael Swann (well known to me in the EFL world) and Lynn Truss both confirm its former popularity. In fact this forum Q and A raises some other interesting points regarding the apostrophe too: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/55970/plurals-of-acronyms-letters-numbers-use-an-apostrophe-or-not

Happy reading for nerds!


10 comments:

  1. Regarding its / it's - you are absolutely right of course! As for changing the rules, I just go my own way and abide by the rules I was taught in the 60's - see :)

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    1. Thank you Jane :) I'm probably doing the same. A very lovely festive season to you and Mr Heron! I shall raise a glass to you both xx

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  2. I used to be fairly good at punctuation until I started writing technical manuals etc. Then the practice of placing commas, semi colons slipped more or less from my grasp.
    Nowadays, I get her Ladyship to cast her beady eyes over everything - other than my poems for those are sacrosanct :)
    On the night of Winter Solstice (22nd Dec) we will tilt a glass in your direction and say "Sláinte Val agus Koos!"

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    1. Very wise too, Mel. I have mine checked too although this is often where the problem lies. One checker will contradict another and they are both convinced they are correct :) I like the idea of the winter solstice celebration, so on Monday night, I will also say "Sláinte" to you both too!

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  3. From one grammatical pedant to another - I rely on my Foster's English Usage if I'm stuck - and I've sure you're (not your) write about it's and its. But I know I used far to many dashes when what I really need is a comma or a colon - they generally indicate that I'm thinking faster than I'm writing!

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    1. A dash is handy though, isn't it, Jo? I use them too...when in doubt, which is probably too often as well!

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  4. they no longer teach grammar and punctuation in school, I think. At least that's how I find it when marking students' essays

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    1. Probably the problem CarolStar. No one knows, but they all think they do.

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  5. Hi Val - I was hopeless at English at school - how on earth anything went in - I do not know. Its and It's - you are quite correct! .. Your and you're .. nightmare for many - we write so fast us bloggers/authors we make mistakes and don't see them.

    I really should take some grammar and punctuation lessons ... I just go with my ...s and I'm quite happy - the I'm is right too!

    Heaven knows how rules and reglatshuns are going to be sorted with txt speke ... can't do that either ...

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Thanks, Hilary! It is a befuddling issue isn't it? Merry Christmas!

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