Pet punctuation peeves: in defence of the apostrophe

eats_shoots_leaves_coverI’m re-reading Lynne Truss’s wonderfully witty and acerbic Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

As academic terms begin, all students should drink deeply of the punctilious wisdom of her ‘inner stickler’!

It’s probably just me getting older rather than the result of any objective study, but my impression is that punctuation standards are in decline. Is it a fruit of the texting generation? I don’t know. But here are some of my pet punctuation peeves regarding the poor abused apostrophe when reading student work:

1.It’s and its

This is the big daddy of punctuation confusion. As Truss puts it,

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses such feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.

This is very simple to get right.

It’s = “it is” or “it has”. “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” NOT “Its a lovely day today.”

Its = any other use apart from “it is” or “it has”. “The table has lost its shine.” NOT “Welcome to the British Library, it’s services and catalogues.” (BL pamphlet, quoted by Truss).

Truss refers to the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe.

For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its. Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant, even if this means we have double reason to go and bang our heads against a wall.

2. God’s and gods

Teaching at a theological college rather unsurprisingly means that God gets talked about a lot. Now, as far as I know, Christians are monotheists who believe in one God, but you would begin to doubt this reading some essays. For example, God’s love becomes Gods love. If the Law of Conservation of the Apostrophe is correct, then a lot of apostrophes are being used where they shouldn’t for they are sure being saved when it comes to a possessive characteristic of God. On occasions, I have resorted to making comments about trinitarian orthodoxy, tritheism and such things, but most often have to restrain myself.

3. whose and who’s / we’re and were and other forms of illiteracy

Truss gives some cringe-worthy examples

“… giving the full name and title of the person who’s details are given in Section 02.” (UK Passport form).

“Your 21 Today!” (birthday card)

4. Confusion over the singular and plural use of the apostrophe

Truss lists some amusing mistakes:

Pupil’s entrance (on a very selective school, presumably)

Adult Learner’s Week (lucky him)

Member’s May Ball (but with whom will the member dance?)

Pansy’s ready (is she?)

Cyclist’s only (his only what?)

Please replace the trolley’s (the trolley’s what?)

5. Dates

I confess to being somewhat chastened reading Truss on the proper use of the apostrophe in dates. For years I’ve been self-righteously correcting 1980’s to 1980s. However, things are not quite as simple and obvious as I thought. Until fairly recently, it was the convention to write 1980’s and (unusually for Americans who love cutting out every possible letter from perfectly good words like neighbour and honour) it still stands in the USA (see The New York Times). But we aren’t in America and the accepted convention is now 1980s, so I stand by with pen in hand.

Truss calls for a rising up of apostrophe vigilantes to get out on the streets, determined to save the little mark from extinction and equipped with the following:

correction fluid

big pens

stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain (for sticking over unwanted apostrophes) and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)

tin of paint with big brush

guerrilla-style clothing

strong medication for personality disorder



I guess a gun is inconsistent with being a pacifist – but surely on extreme occasions cannot a just war for the apostrophe be required? Or at the very least, can students please use spell and grammar check on their wordprocessors? (Yes, I know it’s probably Microsoft, but it’s better than nothing).

Now I’ve confessed to my inner grammar fascism, have you any pet punctuation peeves to share?

4 thoughts on “Pet punctuation peeves: in defence of the apostrophe

  1. This unearths my inner punctuation pedant! I would like to see more modern day use of colons and semi-colons – they are in the writer’s armoury for a reason!

  2. What about Romans 1:13? Is it “I would not have you ignorant, brethren” or “I would not have you, ignorant brethren”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s