Karin Winegar - Published Works

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial

Can't We Stop This Plague of Errant Apostrophes?

By Karin Winegar

Repeat after me: possession, contraction, possession, contraction.

That's it. That's all. All this little Jackson Pollock-like flicking of random little dabs of ink everywhere has to stop. There are rules and reasons for using the apostrophe, and you contribute to the collective befuddlement and the moronization of the culture if you don't follow them.

What some other grammar bore called the apostrophe catastrophe is epidemic.

Let's start with the ubiquitous "Employee's must wash hands."    An employee's hands must be washed, surely, but employees (like cats, dogs, trees, beers, snowmobiles) is a simple plural. Plurals don't require apostrophes.

I supposes it's classist, sexist and other -ist to expect We Rent Harley's, which irks me from the marquee of a chopper rental place in Minneapolis' sex district.

And I suppose the folks in Wisconsin who put up the billboard on Hwy. 94 that declares River Falls Finest Neighborhood didn't consider that a fine (which used to mean educated, not simply wealthy)   neighborhood might want to present itself as accomplished in grammar and punctuation.  And the Woodbury urban sprawl-ites have probably not noticed that St. Johns Drive should really be St. John's Drive (as in the drive belonging to St. John).

And no doubt the photographer whose (not who's) flyer I spotted advertising Cowboy's Needed (cowboys' what are needed?) at a local saddlery is good at things I'm not good at. And there are certainly worthy folks working for the philanthropy for troubled teenagers whose flyer read "Help One Kid, Off the Street's. Donation's $5," but they might want to set a better example.

Lately, it seems no one and no place is exempt, not even Edina. At Gabbert's in the Galleria I spotted a handlettered sign that directed me to "sofa's." A few yards away another sign in the same handwriting directed me to "chairs." This desperately random use of apostrophes indicates that someone is just guessing. There's (a contraction of there is) this thing called an analogy: if the word sofas has an apostrophe, why doesn't the word chairs also have one, hmm?  

I have even spotted this plague in the usually impeccable New York Times: a headline in the Sunday, March 24, 2002 arts section (p29) announced to several million readers that there were "Bravo's in the Hall." And then there was "The cartoon's aren't..." (Sunday March 31, 2002 pg. 10 Week in Review.   Shhh! We're Trying to Surf). If the most authoritative newspaper in the world can't get plurals and possessives straight, we are in dire straits (plural, no apostrophe).   

Bravos and cartoons are no different than Harleys. It's two cartoons, three Harleys, four bravos, five ignorant editors, six dim sign painters, etc.

As for contraction: an apostrophe is inserted where something is removed--like a fossil trace of the letter itself. For example: Don't (do not) think I'm (I am) not watchin' (watching) y'all (you all).

These little cotter pins of language and flyspecks of literature matter not only because they reveal who one is but because punctuation slackness betokens and maybe precedes inattentiveness elsewhere. Before Rome was sacked by the Vandals, Goths and Huns, no doubt citizens had decided that one L or C or X more or less didn't matter. And Roman teenagers went around mumbling the Latin equivalent of  "whatever" and "who cares" and wearing the laces of their sandals untied and the 2nd century AD equivalent of Zoobas, and then senators and scribes got sloppy and then bam! Tall, hirsute people who took one bath a year if they fell through the ice were heaving art onto bonfires in the Roman Forum and   playing dice with centurions' toe-bones, and indoor toilets didn't appear again for more than 1500 years,