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Tech Talk in the Mainstream Media - Dr Ron's Apostrophe Catastrophe's

From time to time we hit the mainstream media

April 11 2008
ABC Radio National - Dr Ron's "Apostrophe Catastrophe's"
Perspective with Sue Clark

Most people remember to start a sentence with a capital letter. That's lucky because most people, when they're reading, look for a capital letter to help them identify the start of a sentence.

Most people also remember to put a full stop at the end of a sentence, which is handy for people reading who actively seek the end of a sentence being annotated by a full stop.

Somewhere in between you put all the words, and in between all the words and letters you put punctuation: small marks like commas, hyphens, colons and brackets.

[no punctuation] Punctuation is a device we provide to the reader so the reader knows when to pause take a breath quote direct speech avoid ambiguity and even assist in interpreting meaning -

But punctuation doesn't happen when we speak, does it? Well it needed to in that previous sentence. Punctuation is something we generally only consider when we're reading and writing. It's a courtesy that we provide to the people who are reading our writing. Punctuation tends to reflect the subtle intonation of our spoken language.

Now by far the most neglected, malnourished, abused and confused punctuation mark is the apostrophe. You know the apostrophe, it's the small mark that you always put at the end of every word that ends with an 's'.

For those of you cringing so hard that your eyes are watering and your fingernails are drawing blood from the very palms of your balled-up hands, then take a deep breath while we solve this apostrophic catastrophe.

However if you're one of the many that thinks, when it comes to apostrophes, "if in doubt, put one in"... well, I've got some bad news for you.

Apostrophes do two things, that's all.

The easy thing they do is to make contractions. Not the kind that interest gynaecologists. I'm talking about "do not" becoming "don't", "would have" becoming "would've", and "it is" or "it has" becoming "it's". The apostrophe simply replaces the missing letter or letters. Sometimes the powerful, broad-shouldered apostrophe even replaces whole words: "five of the clock" becomes more conventionally, "five o'clock".

Now for the more contentious, much maligned apostrophe which forms the possessives of nouns. You know what I mean: Dr Ron's socks; the ABC's programming; a government's foreign policy and the general's daughters.

The easiest way I find to work out where the apostrophe goes in a possessive scenario, is to turn the sentence around into a phrase with the words "...belonging to...".

For example, I want to correctly punctuate the phrase "Dr Ron's smelly socks". If I change this to read "the smelly socks belonging to Dr Ron", I simply add an apostrophe at the end of the name Ron. The phrase then becomes "Dr Ron's [Ron-apostrophe-'s'] smelly socks."

If multiple doctors (a "dosage" of doctors, if you will,) have a number of patients, I would imagine the phrase, "the patients belonging to the doctors". I simply add an apostrophe at the end of the word "doctors", so when I read "the doctors' patients", (that is, "doctors" followed by an apostrophe,) I know I'm talking about the collective patients of more than one doctor.

Please note that apostrophes are never, ever, under pain of death, used to denote plurals. If you happen to see a green-grocer's chalkboard advertising "banana's for sale", with any apostrophe anywhere, whatsoever, politely but firmly draw the green-grocer's attention to this grammatical abomination and demand that any or all apostrophes be removed from his bananas forthwith.

Let's have a quick look at possessive pronouns. The monkey is now eating its banana. It's not eating "it is" banana. There's no apostrophe. Don't confuse the possessive pronoun "its" with the contraction "it is". Indeed, much-revered author and demi-god amongst grammarians, Lynne Truss, mourns the demise of the humble apostrophe in her reference guide, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. "To those who care about punctuation," writes Lynne, "a sentence such as 'Thank God its Friday' (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive 'its'... with the contractive 'it's' is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian 'kill' response in the average stickler."

So please remember, next time you type an email, write a restaurant chalkboard, or even pen that social club newsletter for the local hockey team : if an apostrophe is misplaced, were now aware of the consequences.

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books, 2005

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