PUNCTUATION 

 

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For the Sunday Gazette

 




 “To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905,  
   demanded
to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and
   thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution.”

                                     -Dedication to Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

                                      



I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the best-selling book cited above at our Monday noon “Books Sandwiched In” program sponsored by the Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library. The program is coordinated by Linda Witkowski, whom several of my children fondly remember as their English teacher at Niskayuna High School.

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is about the use and misuse of punctuation, especially those pesky apostrophes that keep cropping up where they don’t belong and that are often cruelly omitted when they are clearly needed. The book’s title, explained on the jacket, not inside, is supposedly derived from a badly punctuated wildlife manual that defines a panda as being a large black and white mammal native to China that “eats, shoots and leaves.”


If you find this book in the humor section of a bookstore, then, by all means, buy it. But if you find it in the reference section, don’t; get the Chicago Manual of Style instead. In the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Louis Lapham tears the book to shreds, citing its many inconsistencies and factual errors. Much of the problem stems from the fact that Ms. Truss is British and there is no American version of her book. Just as American and English word usage is often quite different, so too are our respective rules for punctuation. And then the author compounds the problem by using a mixture of both in the book itself.

The author errs slightly when she says that Lands’ End is unapologetic about putting the apostrophe in the wrong place; actually they do apologize on their website. Did a British publisher err when the famous E. M. Forster novel was issued as “Howards End,” without an apostrophe? Google, which knows everything, says that Forster was furious, but wasn’t he asked to read proof for his own book?

The book is unfailingly humorous and entertaining from its dedication on. Given that I have called your attention to it, note that the “St” in “St Petersburg” has no period (a “full stop” to the Brits). The author supports its suppression in such common abbreviations as “Mr,” Mrs,” “Lt,” and “Dr.” I’m getting used to seeing that in many recent books even though it will impose a pay cut on those Bolshevik printers.

I’m holding my breath until I see whether the foregoing paragraph is typeset the way I intended. If you noticed that there is a dot after “Dr,” then that is because American practice is to put closing periods inside of closing quote marks whereas in the UK they go outside. I have great trouble reading The Economist because of this; those misplaced periods interrupt my chain of thought. Furthermore, I believe in the serial comma, the one I am trying to put after “Lt” in the string of abbreviations cited in the prior paragraph. If it’s (careful, Ed) not there, then it means that the Gazette will insist on its usual Associated Press (and British) style of omitting the comma toward the end of a series containing “and” or “or.”

The serial comma is called the “Oxford comma” by Ms. Truss, and she is opposed to it. Note that she did not use one after the ampersand in the book’s title. I claim it is often needed either to prevent ambiguity or to guide the reader to pause and give the final item coequal importance. My own concocted example is “Here they come, one by one. In order, the cars were red, green and white, blue and gold.” How many cars, three or four? A serial comma would make it clear that there were four. Without one, we are left wondering whether the last one was two-tone.

Locally, street signs that indicate names starting with “St.” are problematic. Several, but not all of the signs that designate St. David’s Lane are missing their apostrophe, and so is one on St. Mark’s Lane. St. Joseph Drive avoids the controversy by using the saint’s name as an adjective. None of the possessive saint names listed on Jimapco maps contain an apostrophe. And though he was no saint, Governor Yates’s street in the stockade is rendered, as shown below, sans apostrophe.


                         



Can “sandwich’s” ever be correct? Yes, outside a shop in a certain town on Cape Cod there is the following sign:


                                 

But signs that advertise “toy’s” or “raffle ticket’s” hurt. And I much dislike the New York Times style that makes a decade like the 1990s look possessive by printing it as the “1990’s.” One needs the apostrophes in something like “mind your p’s and q’s,” but plural numbers don’t need apostrophes.

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The author’s pet peeve is the incorrect use of “it’s” when “its” is called for, or the reverse. She points out that no personal pronoun contains an apostrophe, other examples being “his,” “hers,” “ours,” “yours,” and “theirs.” “It’s,” on the other hand is the contraction for “it is.” To quote her indignation: “Carved in stone (in stone, mind you) in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides, ‘Judge a tree from it’s fruit: not the leaves”—and it is all too easy to imagine the stone-mason dithering momentarily over that monumental apostrophe, mallet in hand, chisel poised.”

But we’re not immune to carving mistakes in stone locally, either; the cornerstone of the library contains the names of the county representatives who authorized construction, and the one honoring John Toppeta is erroneously rendered with a double (second) T. 

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Sometimes modifiers ending in ‘s’ can be considered as adjectives rather than possessives. The “Veterans Administration,” for example, is not an entity that is owned by veterans, but rather one that provides service to veterans. Another example is the full name “Borders Books and Music” for the store on Wolf Road. The company was founded by the brothers Tom and Louis Borders, so one can argue that they are now a brand name being used as an adjective as is done with “Brooks Brothers Suits.”

Alas, there is no excuse for the recent dropping of the apostrophe from the Proctor’s logo. Unlike Borders, our beloved theater (or, if we must be theatric, “theatre”) was founded by one Mr. Proctor, not two, so the decades-old version of the logo on the building is properly possessive. As shown in the ad below, one instance of "Proctor" is properly possessive, but logo makes it look like we are honoring a group of teachers who monitor exams.

                          

Homonyms, like punctuation, can trip us up too. An Owens-Corning roofing ad at Lowe’s says that their shingles come with “complimentary shadows” and that their colors “compliment vinyl siding.” We need a new roof, so I’m glad that the shadows are free, and I can hardly wait to hear a colored shingle tell the side of the house how nice it looks.


                         

                                      

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., an author and editor of several technical books, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.