The Abused, Misused Apostrophe

Wednesday was a dark day for the apostrophe, used in the English language to indicate the possessive case ("Joe's Pub") or a contraction ("I'm here.").

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Wednesday was a dark day for the apostrophe, used in the English language to indicate the possessive case ("Joe's Pub") or a contraction ("I'm here.").

In New York, apostrophes took center stage in the feud between the mayoral campaigns of Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn, after the wife of the former was quoted by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd seemingly making unflattering statements about the city council speaker, in which she suggested Quinn did not understand working families with kids, presumably because she is a lesbian. It turned out that De Blasio's wife had actually been misquoted, but Quinn's campaign hit back with a statement that contained the following sentence:

I have a large, loving family of Catullo’s and Quinn’s, with 10 nieces and nephews who I absolutely adore, like [they're] my own.”

If you think that conflation of the plural with the possessive is bad — and from someone who aspires to lead New York City, no less! — then just take a look at what happened over in the U.K., where Apprentice contestant Luisa Zissman "horrified her Twitter followers today by revealing that she had a surprisingly weak grasp of basic grammar" according to a wonderfully breathless report in The Telegraph.

The offending tweet is definitely NSFW if you happen to be an English teacher:

The tweet — about a business Zissman is starting — provoked outrage among grammarians:

We will quote again from the wonderfully British Telegraph report:

A stream of advice from rather more well-meaning followers informed her that it should be either Baker's Toolkit or Bakers' Toolkit, depending on the number of intended bakers.

But she then enraged the grammar zealots further by declaring that regardless of the rules, she simply preferred the way it looked with no apostrophe at all.

Here is what Zissman tweeted in response to her detractors:

In fact, it is not all about the brand, Luisa, especially since the apostrophe is used to indicate possession — one of the basic concepts of civilization.

Jeff Deck of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, who authored the book The Great Typo Hunttells The Atlantic Wire that the error committed by Quinn and Zissman is all too common:

During the Great Typo Hunt, we did find that the most common mistakes involved misuse of apostrophes, or neglecting them altogether. Signs advertising "Mens Clothing" or "Delicious Apple's" can be found all across the U.S., far outnumbering spelling mistakes like "restuarant" or "tasty deserts."

However, he does concede that some businesses can get away with breaking the apostrophe rule — but only if they do so confidently and with knowledge of their own transgression:

This particular entrepreneur's mistake was revealing to her followers that she didn't *know* whether to use punctuation. She should have confidently announced the name of the business as "Bakers Toolkit" if she really felt it looked better that way. She'd have plenty of precedent. On her side of the ocean there's Harrods, Barclays, and Waterstones (formerly Waterstone's).

That still does not excuse Quinn, nor the countless others who make this error on a daily basis. Such as this, captured by Deck during his travels through Cataldo, Id.:

Or this deeply offensive sign, which Deck discovered in a little town called Cleveland. Note that, here, the apostrophe is not so much misused as it is missing, since "lets" is really a contraction for "let us" and hence should be "let's."

If this post has sufficiently chastened you, read Grammar Girl's primer on apostrophe use here. And let us all pray for this much-maligned punctuation mark.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.