Apostrophe Madness

Apostrophe Man

Do you ever look at a word so long when you’re trying to spell it that you start doubting it’s really a word?

Tacoma. Ta-co-ma. Tacoma. Yeah, that’s right. Taco-MAHHH! (like the evil priest shouting “Kali Ma!” in Temple of Doom while struggling with Indiana Jones).

Tacoma? Hmm. This is such a simple word, yet the Native Americans had a different version. Tahoma. The name of the mighty mountain. Ta-ho-ma…. Ta-ho-MAHHHH!!!

It’s amazing how much you can question your judgment when you think about a word too much. This same sort of overcautious analysis seems to be contributing to a cultural crisis involving apostrophes and quotation marks. You know, the ‘doink’ and “doink doink” marks.

In the past five years, I have seen an increasing use of unnecessary apostrophes in written language. An apostrophe usually denotes possession of something: Tom’s house. Bob’s ridiculous Speedos. Jan’s questionable Botox.

But what I see is apostrophes being used to make something plural: three horse’s walked by. Fifty-three masked superhero’s converged on the Champ’s-Elysée’s for the tight’s festival. The watermelon’s in the store looked like they had survived several unseasonal monsoon’s.

When such widespread errors occur in our language and culture, I try to pinpoint the causes. Colloquialisms and catch phrases can usually be traced to a public event or pop culture, such as middle-aged women purring “fabulous…” like Kim Cattrall.

I’m not saying that’s wrong; goodness knows we all have our favorite phrases and some of us tend to overuse certain words. For example, I can’t stand the whole “gag me with a spoon” Valley Girl phenomenon of the early ’80s, and am amazed how many women my age still have that affect in their voice. Even so, friends have pointed out my affinity for the word “like” as filler.

In the case of apostrophes, I don’t even have a good theory. Did decades of fear instilled by exacting English teachers finally cause people to overuse apostrophes to err on the side of caution? Are people not being properly taught how to use them? It’s odd.

One of the most confusing words to use with an apostrophe is it. “It” is an exception to the rule when you’re showing possession. If you’re saying it is time for tea and crumpets, you write it’s time. If the ogre living in your basement says it is time for his/her tea, then it’s time for its tea, no apostrophe.

Showing possession with apostrophes can be especially challenging when dealing with words that end in s. Chris has a jelly donut. Is this Chris’ donut, Chris’s donut, or Chris’es donut? The correct answer is Chris’, although I am almost certain I learned something different involving more s’s (ses? s’es?!!) in seventh grade. (Perhaps Chris should not have a donut if it’s going to confuse people. Sorry Chris.)

Moving on to quotation marks, these are more short, slanted pieces of punctuation that seem to be used in excess. I catch myself doing this; I think it’s contagious. Quotation marks didn’t used to be such a struggle. The more they are misused, the less confident I am in my own utilization of these literary corn cob holders.

While glancing at the bulletin board outside the grocery store, you may see an ad for bassoon lessons with “Dave.” I can’t help but wonder. Is Dave his real name, or just a pseudonym to lure unsuspecting woodwind players into his home? Is he trying to emphasize the name Dave as a trustworthy and historically-based name that conjures up the image of the patron saint of Wales?

Traditionally, I’ve seen quotation marks used to directly quote someone and show when someone is speaking: “The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Sometimes they’re used to make a word or phrase stand out, or to denote irony, like when you’re complimenting your Aunt Edna on her aromatic vegan “meatloaf” (wink wink). But nowadays I see quotation marks everywhere, like when someone leaves a Post-it note on your desk that says, “please remove 972 ‘floobernickels’ from stock.”

This makes me feel like a super spy. Does he mean a real floobernickel, or a “floobernickel” of another sort? Is it a code word? Should I be paying special attention to that word, or is that a hint that deflects attention to the number 972? What if this is an Ottendorf cipher, and it will lead me to a giant treasure warehouse under a Boston church and a city of gold?

Quotation marks can really add to or detract from what you’re saying. What if your pet python has disappeared, and you post lost pet posters with the snake’s name, Wilhelmina, prominently at the center of the page in quotation marks?

Again, I would be puzzled as to why Wilhelmina is in quotation marks, unless that is your python’s nickname, and her real name is Florence. Also, if I find your scaly roommate curled up in my bathtub and want to lure her out, will she answer to a name in quotes?

Widespread concern over the proper use of the English language already exists in our culture. Slang, swearing, and technology have all contributed to the creation of a linguistic mutant that is lol’ing @ u & me. Most of us use abbreviated words and terms when texting and emailing, but children communicate this way so often that I wonder if they will be functionally literate adults.

I’m guilty of spelling and grammar errors; look around my blog and I’m sure that you’ll find room for improvement. When I write school papers, I usually have to abide by a strict APA format and lose points if I make mistakes with punctuation. On my blog, the atmosphere is much more casual as I write about whatever whenever. I’m not too worried about it as most of us are human and make such mistakes.

But I can’t help but point out the surging popularity of apostrophes and quotation marks in the midst of our other language challenges. I’m still not quite on board with all of the newer slang and symbols, so my mastery of the older ones is further stretched. When I received a text the other day that had a three and a pointy thing in it, I stared at it from all angles without making sense of it.

<3. Less than three? A Bactrian camel on stilts? An amply endowed woman in one of those pointy bicycle helmets? Or was it a double-scoop of pecan ice cream lying on the ground? Perhaps it was some sort of Freemason conspiracy warning. I finally googled the thing and found out that’s a heart in texting language.


Maybe if it was bracketed in quotes, I’d understand. “<3”. Ah, yes, a “heart”. It was just that simple. LOL, ROFL, R2D2, CIA. What a “riot.” Such a silly little thing became such a big “deal.” Maybe the kid’s are alright and its just us slightly older person’s who are “out of touch” with the reality’s of modern language.

Or maybe we’ve all lost our grasp on the fine art of communication… and we’re all tripping each other up and falling into a dizzying vortex of excessive punctuation and text speak together. If Victor Borge were to incorporate today’s style of writing into his phonetic pronunciation routine, the poor man would run out of breath and be lying on the stage unconscious.

“DQMOT.” I’m just thinking “out loud.”


Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary. -Frank L. Visco

©2011 H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com. All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “Apostrophe Madness

  1. Heidi! You are absolutely Brilliant! You have only one failing! That is that you make all the people who read your Blog feel like we’d better start paying attention to our speech and what we write! You have definately put your finger on the pulse of the weakness of Human comunication! Wendy and I love your Blog and we KNOW that you will be disectioning everything we write and Wendy says to tell you that she will be signing up for your Blog! We Love You!


    1. Thank you so much. I don’t want to make people self-conscious, just more conscious about the King’s English. Hopefully they will hold me accountable too. So, hey there English lit major, hopefully since you’re on my blog you can give me some pointers! Thank you to Wendy– tell her she should start a blog so I can sign up for it!


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