On Apostrophes, Molehills and Wallace Stegner

It is said that sometimes people make mountains out of molehills, and we all know what that means. There is a regrettable trait in?us humans that inexplicably lets us seize upon a simple (and perhaps wrong) notion and expand and soap-box upon its importance beyond all reason.

Sometimes it means a bad case of grandstanding. Sometimes it is symptomatic of nagging or bullying. Sometimes it exemplifies the old trap of “monkey’s fist in the coconut”: having grasped that sweet meat inside the coconut, the monkey is unable to withdraw his fist, but refuses to let go, because to let go would be to give up the coconut meat.

And sometimes people “go off” on trivial issues simply because they’ve had it; they’re fed to the teeth.

I don’t know about you Easterners and your moles, but out west we call them “gophers”. It isn’t the odd gopher mound here and there that aggravates western homeowners, but acres and acres of them, compacted into a single family tract, so that once-green lawns look like a county landfill project. When our neighbor sees a single gopher hole, it’s a certainty he’s going to see more, so he’s forgiven for making the metaphorical mountain out of it, so long as he gets it out of his system and doesn’t rabbit on about it forever.

My mole-hill is the alarming misuse of the apostrophe in what used to be, in grammar school, fairly easy-to-diagram sentences. And I’d bet they don’t teach diagramming of sentences nowadays either, but I’d be digressing.

As much as you, I also deplore hand-wringing about the wretched and humbling apostrophe, particularly when we have global warming, several Mideast wars and a rheumatic economy. It just seems to me it’s getting worse.

In daily corporate email from people who should know better (and normally do), I see constructs like “Oop’s, re-sending to include Joe Blow”, and “Lets clean up the email’s in those mailboxes”.

Recently I reviewed a flawless, well-worded Product Announcement that my company was preparing to send out to clients. It said:

  • The accounts identified on the reports can be turned off by the Client so they will not produce statements if Client’s so choose.
  • I wrote back praising the release but pointing out the only error I could find:

  • In the sentence below, the possessive apostrophe should be removed from “Client’s” so that the PA text just reads “Clients”.
  • No matter how “understandable” grammar errors are in-house, releasing same to the client always tends to be received in the most unfavorable light possible: it makes us look like idiots.

    We also see punctuation errors involving the apostrophe in every newspaper (print or web). We see them in nationally circulated magazines. We see them in TV ads. I’ve seen them on BBC – it isn’t just us.

    It goes without saying that in personal emails, internet blogs, private and corporate websites, public forums and bulletin boards, we see so many typos and bad constructs it’s fair to say they’re lousy with errors, fairly crawling with them. I no longer battle those. I shrug and get on with real life.

    I almost never see apostrophe errors in the New Yorker magazine, and almost never in books. The expected level of training in grammatical issues is so high, and the number of people reviewing the material so great, that the odds of an error slipping through are close to zero.

    So it brought me a great shock to find such an error in a prized book, The Sound of Mountain Water, a collection of essays by Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite authors. Stegner taught writing at Harvard and Stanford, among other places; he won the Pulitzer for his novel Angle of Repose, and several other awards in a distinguished career.

    Stegner’s error (as I recall) was of the form:

  • We’re joining the Simpson’s for dinner
  • Where he might have written:

  • “We’re going over to the Simpsons’ for dinner”
  • or simply,

  • We’re joining the Simpsons for dinner.”
  • At first I just studied the error, parsed it, re-parsed it, and studied it again. By everything I know that is holy and true, it was an error. And then I shrugged and got on with real life. But it nagged at me. Was this a typo? How did it get past all those editors? My fist had become stuck in the coconut.

    A diligent researcher would be able to go right back to that quote, and effortlessly trot it out for you on page such and such, and we could discuss it, and the researcher would look smart for having made the finding of a needle in the haystack look so easy.

    A plodding, inattentive researcher would fail to mark the page, then spend hours and hours going back over the book, until finally he would locate and mark the offending passage. And he would conceal this effort from you, making our researcher look smart for having made the finding of a needle in the haystack look so easy.

    And then there are the cowards and failed researchers, who merely pretend at their trade, who will simply assert that they did find such an error and never divulge how many hours they wasted in vain search for the offending passage. They will lamely trot out an analogy, not a real error, but a fabricated one that is “like” the real one, they say — or at least, as closely as their memory serves, which obviously is not well enough.

    And I am not going to tell you which one I am, but I do promise that if I ever find that error again, I will trot it out, even if it is 3:00 AM and the normal world is fast asleep, and I will shout out, “See, I TOLD you so!”

    The Problem With English

    The biggest single problem with the English apostrophe seems to be our confusion over the differences between contractions, plurals and possessives, all of which usually end in the letter ‘s’. And the second biggest problem seems to be the inconsistent application of the rules between proper and improper nouns, such as “Charlie’s limits” vs. “its limits”.

    An American of average education should be able to sit down and verbally reconstruct the Rights of Man, from first principles if need be. If called upon to do so, he might be asked to explain, in ordinary English, the proper motion of the planets and other heavenly bodies. He or she should also be reasonably current on the technology of the day, so that if a small child asked us how GPS works, or, heaven help us, cell phones, we are expected to come up with some sort of reasonable answer in language anyone can understand.

    But, God help us all, there is no requirement that anyone should be expected to explain the rules of ordinary English punctuation. Rankin cycles in heat engines – perhaps. Amateur string theory and particle physics, unified – certainly. Punctuation, never.

    Punctuation is the reason so many people still cling to a belief in seances and astrology. “For those who know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, none is possible.”

    Strunk’s Elements of Style

    For punctuation, I know right where to find the answers when I need them, and you probably do too: The venerated old 1918 Strunk’s Elements of Style. And I need those answers, and the book’s not on the shelf where I think it should be: this is but one of the many confusing benefits of having one’s library split between residences in two states.

    There are some rules that I find troublesome. For example, the possessives of words that already end in “s”: Fortunately, Strunk is also on the web. We often can make an end run around the rules:

    Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by

  • the heel of Achilles
  • the laws of Moses
  • the temple of Isis
  • But as we know, some end-runs don’t sound right. I was born with a surname ending in ‘s’: Forbes. “Forbes’ house” looks stilted. “The house of Forbes” implies a second meaning, perhaps a place of high fashion, and it sounds way too pretentious. Mostly, I settled on “Forbes’s house” even though I never saw a rule that justifies it.

    But here you go:

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

  • Charles’s friend
  • Burns’s poems
  • the witch’s malice
  • And finally,

    The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

    Even writing this stuff down is confusing. From generation to generation of native-born Americans, we are still learning English as a second language.

    Lost on the Trail

    So, did I ever find the Stegner error? First, I fell back on re-reading the chapters where memory told me, faultily, I was most likely to find the error. Then, I fell back on reading the chapters backwards until I might find what I was looking for. Lastly, I threw out any pretense of methodology and started re-reading the book from the first page of Stegner’s Introduction.

    We said this is like looking for the needle in the haystack. Actually, here there are several haystacks, and there are many needles hidden within each haystack. They are all colored bright orange. The needle we are looking for looks like any other needle, except that it is colored bright red-orange.

    In every backpacker’s career there comes a time when necessity finally forces one to re-trace one’s steps, or try to. Perhaps you realize have left a primus stove at a lake where you stopped for lunch. You could go on, cooking meals over collected firewood (when the rules permit). But you elect to hike back to the lake, where, fifteen minutes later, there it is, bright, shiny and embarrassingly hard to miss: some idiot has left his camp stove just off the trailside.

    Sometimes you are actually lost, as I wrote about in another story some time back, so that your task is not merely re-tracing your steps along the trail, but to re-find the trail at all. Moving in the generalized right direction, or perhaps even moving in every-increasing semicircles, if you are lucky, you find the trail. If you are unlucky, you will spend the night shivering in shorts and T-shirt, and perhaps read about yourself in the newspapers if you are lucky enough to get through this and get home.

    Having found the trail, which way, up or down? Does this overhanging branch look familiar? Of course it does; you curse yourself – they all look exactly like that. In the end, you hope for a bit of luck when the deja vu kicks in and you know that camp is just off to the left of this bend in the trail.

    That is the situation I am in with this apostrophe mess.The Stegner book does not yet look anything like a “well-worn favorite”, but already it is festooned with extra bookmarks and little Post-It page markers to tell me where I have already been.

    There could be worse fates than re-reading a book I enjoy very much, and this is not a case where I absolutely have to be back at camp by sundown. Starting back at page 1, I realize by page 77 I have already re-read this chapter. I haven’t just been here before; I’ve been here before twice. I’m going in circles.

    While I am floundering around on the side of the mountain, I would like to share with you a passage from Stegner that particularly resonated with me. It speaks to what I call the “River Theme”, a powerful symbol that for me replaces the steeples and bells and trappings of organized man-made worship. It is from “Overture: The Sound of Mountain Water”, Chapter 1. He is writing of a visit to the highest headwaters of the Snake, which “was starting through its thousand miles of canyons to the Columbia and the Pacific”:

    “By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute. Watch its racing current, its steady renewal of force: it is transient and eternal. And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath – a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to flow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.”

    And, your honor, and if I may indulge your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, now that we have all shared the raw power of a writer of Stegner’s caliber, why are we wasting time in this courtroom haggling over an apostrophe? Even if the deceased defendant Stegner ever actually made that alleged error, as this undocumented charlatan charges, what of it? What should we think, when the person stepping forward to make this charge of grammatical lapse is unable to produce any shred of evidence that Professor Stegner, a Pulitzer prize winner, really made this so-called error at all? In this world of hopelessly inconsistent English grammar rules, unknowable even in the highest places – the White House, for example – if he erred, where is the crime here, ladies and gentlemen, and who has the right to step forward and blame Stegner?

    Far be it from me to point the finger. My point was that apostrophe errors reach into even the highest literary plateaus of the land, not that Stegner (it seemed to me at the time) made the error. My case has crumbled. I wish I could shrink out of the courtroom unseen. In a country that celebrates whistle-blowers, I blew the whistle, and when people came, I said, in so many words, “I’m not really sure why I blew the damned thing after all.” As I disclosed earlier, I’ve been here before.

    I’m really lost on the trail this time. I’m going to abandon this essay, high in the unread backwaters of American web pages, and just concentrate on finding my way back to civilization — hoping against hope that I am not going to read about myself in the newspapers if I make it back at all.

    And what if I do eventually stumble upon the alleged Lost Apostrophe? We are not talking “Lost Dutchman Mine” here.? Would?I make the big announcement? I changed my mind. That will probably never happen. People are not going to go pouring over the mountain, gold pans, picks and sluice boxes stacked high on mule-back, looking to stake a personal claim in the greatest strike since the Comstock Lode.

    Sometimes it just pays to keep one’s mouth shut. If I’d done that in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, you wouldn’t be looking at me and at this page in that tone of voice, and we could all get back to the really important things in life, like why Google offers over 17,900,000 English pages for the search topic “Paris Hilton.”

    I’ll tell you what, though. Should you ever actually find that errant apostrophe yourself, please do let me know. I’ll make the announcement that it has been found, but neither of us will ever reveal its true location. The world will be goaded into reading more Wallace Stegner, and less about Paris Hilton, and something good might come of this essay after all.

    Alex Forbes, ?copyright June 21, 2007

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