Grouchy old retired editor yells at punctuation clouds…

I consider myself a reasonable person. At least in most things. I don’t consider myself a grammar Nazi, either. But I have to admit there are some things, grammar-wise, that people do that drive me absolutely crazy.

Chief among these things is the misuse of the friendly, useful apostrophe and his little buddy, the comma.

Apostrophes are handy things. They give readers all sorts of useful clues, mostly concerning who owns what. There are, for instance, lots of moms, but my mom’s recipe for pie crust is superior. See what happened there? More than one mom turned into a single, possessive mom, and all it took was an apostrophe.

Commas, those little crescents that look like a ground-based apostrophes, are our friends, too. They tell us what sorts of things go together, what things need to be considered separately, and sometimes where we ought to take a breath when we’re reading out loud.

Misuse of these entirely practical little squiggles is a plague on our society. Not to mention the world and quite possibly the universe. I’ve been fighting against it, in a quiet sort of way, ever since I got into the editing game. My general rule in life is “Moderation in all things,” and when it comes to punctuation it’s even more true. Fewer apostrophes and commas would, I think, be a kindness to everyone. It would certainly make for kinder, gentler editors.

Lo, those many years ago when I was toiling in the editorial fields, I gradually became aware that overuse of commas was driving me crazy. It was a serious problem when we were still typing stories on our trusty upright Royals. I became adept at the squiggle that tells the typesetter to treat all those invasive commas as invisible. But then we started using those little TRS-80 laptops, and removing excess commas—which was most of them—became a laborious pain since it had to be done one at a time.

And then glorious technological progress! Macintosh computers, friendly little boxes that looked like Wall-E, sort of sidled into the newspaper office and became our boon companions, running early versions of Microsoft Word and spitting out copy on nearly silent LaserWriters. And with Word came the wonderful ability to seek and destroy! Errant commas could no longer hide from my blue pen or amongst the legitimate characters on a small LCD screen; squiggles were no longer necessary to excise the little buggers from copy.

And this was a Godsend, especially when it came to editing sports copy. I really liked all the sports writers. I went along with jargon and buzzwords and clichés. But all those extra, extraneous commas? No! Which is where the search and destroy function came in so handy. First thing I’d do is search for commas and replace them with nothing at all (whoever thought up that idea is a genius on a par with Einstein), because there were generally only a dozen or so needed in any given piece and I was sometimes getting a dozen a sentence. Not that I begrudge the serial comma, of course. That’s the one place I make an exception. Strangely enough though, those comma nuts seldom use the serial comma, which would mean I’d actually have to insert commas.

Unlike commas, apostrophes seemed to create confusion and hesitation. When it came to commas, writers throw hands-full, barrels full, boxcar loads of the things into perfectly innocent paragraphs and sentences. But with apostrophes, usage seems to be one of the universe’s particularly tangled mysteries to many writers. They appear to get nervous if they haven’t used one in a while, so they seem determined to stick them in randomly, just to keep their hands in and the copy interesting.

“The Smith’s liked that,” they’d write. “American’s are just fine,” they scribble. And what is the poor copy editor supposed to make of such writing? Smiths and Americans are just fine, all of them, without throwing apostrophes at them on the off chance they might make sense. Really they are.

I tell you, commas and apostrophes were banes of my existence, but they became less baneful after I hustled out of the office door following a particularly nice going away party—even if I was pressed back into emergency service for awhile afterwards and even if I didn’t get a second nice going away party. I was not bitter, however, because I knew I’d never have to edit another sports story written by someone with a comma fixation ever again.

However…however I still read. A lot. And those misplaced commas and apostrophes still grate on me when I see them. I’m not quite as militant as Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots & Leaves, who has been known to harangue theatre owners over errant apostrophes on marquees—and even steal them if she can reach high enough to snatch them away from places they should not be. Ever.

This book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

The title of this book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

I don’t do that. But I grouse. I complain. I bore my wife. I can’t help it. When I see a book jacket with a really nice type face spelling out the title, Unknown Wars of Asia, Africa, and The America’s That Changed History, I can’t help it. I ask myself, “America’s what?” No apostrophe is needed there; IT IS NOT A POSSESSIVE! It is meant to be a plural. Why is that apostrophe there? Did the book’s art director decide to stick it to grammarians because he had a bad experience trying to diagram sentences in seventh grade? Or perhaps he’s new to this country. Having come from Luxembourg only the week before, it’s possible he’s unfamiliar with proper apostrophe use. Or maybe she’s from south of the Ohio River. I understand they do terrible things to sentence structure down there because they’re still angry that Sherman invented urban renewal in Atlanta, only he started in the white parts of town.

So anyway, I think I’m feeling better now and besides, it’s time for supper. Writing is easier than a lot of us make it, and harder, too. Most of the time, less really is more. And a good supper cures many ills.

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6 Comments

Filed under Frustration, Newspapers, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Grouchy old retired editor yells at punctuation clouds…

  1. Jacqueline Standish

    Roger, you grumpy old curmudgeon; (How do you feel about semi-colons?) you rock! Hmmmm……..but what about that ugly dingle dangley prepositional phrase hanging off the end of the book title – ugh! Also………what’dya think about the ‘Capitalized’ ‘t’ in the word, ‘The’…….? Roger??? You still conscious????? :- )

    • RAM

      Still what passes for conscious these days. I can take semi-colons or leave ’em; they’re relatively harmless as are those dangling thises and thats. My rule was–and is–to always write like the people I hang around with speak. But even with blogging there’s always the feeling of terror when you hit that little blue “Publish” button that’s reminiscent of Thursday after we put the paper to bed Wednesday afternoon. There was always something, from the time Mrs. Steele reminded me they’re Canada geese, not Canadian geese, to the time we printed out the heading for the Public Notice column with the fire district’s budget without the “l” in Public, which was the cause for much hilarity down at the fire station for a few weeks. It’s always something…

      • Jacqueline Standish

        Ain’t it just so……………..! However, whatever brings about a really satisfying and widespread guffaw – which the not-quite “Public” Notice just must have done – has to be a “public” service itself, no? Besides, I’d venture that small blip served to “goose” your readership numbers – Canada or no, I couldn’t say………………..:- ) JS

  2. RAM

    As we told the guys down at the fire barn at the time: “Hey, it passed the spell check.”

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