Saturday, June 27, 1987
The grammar has a rule absurd
Which I would call an outworn myth;
A preposition is a word,
You mustn’t end a sentence with!
— Braley, A Rule to Be Afraid of
Those of my readers who turn to this space hoping to find legal or political inspiration can skip this week’s musings consisting, as they do, of what can best be described as a defense of the apostrophe. Few inhabitants of the world of grammatical parts are as oft-abused as it.
If ever our sympathies were looking for a grammatical home they would land at its door-step. Though in appearance it is scarcely more than a careless pen-stroke on a page, it is subject to the most outlandish treatment at the hands of those not privy to its secrets. Its abusers fall into many categories.
There are those who out of apparent disdain for the letter “s” are convinced that when that misshapen letter ends a word it should be protected by the addition of an apostrophe. To those users it matters not how the “s” happened to find its way to the end of the word. That the “s” was not added to demonstrate possessiveness or the absence of its alphabetical colleagues is of no consequence to its abusers. What matters is that it is there. As lawyers are wont to add Esquire to their names in order to let all know of their importance, the apostrophically illiterate place the object of their ignorance whenever the letter “s” and fancy strike them. They hope, thereby, to dignify not only the letter “s” but their literary skills which, unfortunately, the ill-placed apostrophe serves only to contradict.
A quick review of ads sported in the Yellow Pages discloses that I can eat at something called the Dicken’s Restaurant and Bar. Although it advertises itself as being Victorian in atmosphere it is apparently not named after the famous Charles Dickens but rather, one assumes, after its current owner, Mr. Dicken.
Another restaurant has a picture of two women as part of its ad. Beneath their portraits is the legend “Chef’s Faith and Anne.” The apostrophe leads one to conclude that one of the women is “Faith” on whom the chef and perhaps the customer as well rely. The other is a woman named Anne whose role in the ad is not explained. Why the Chef’s faith is favored with an initial capital is also unclear unless the food is so bad it takes a very special Faith to eat there.
The “s” is not the only letter on whom the apostrophe finds itself foisted. The unaccompanied “n” comes in a close second. Because the apostrophe follows that letter when the word “not” is contracted, many assume that the letter “n” can appropriately appear in public by itself so long as it is accompanied by an apostrophe. They believe that the accompaniment of that tiny mark will help avert a grammatical misfortune. They are usually wrong.
The unaccompanied “n” is most frequently used by those who tire of the conjunction “and.” Believing it to be overlong, many would-be wordsmiths shorten it by removing the “a” and the “d.” They assume that omission of those two letters is pardoned so long as the “n” is accompanied by an apostrophe. Those who belong to that school follow no special rule with respect to placement of the apostrophe. Some cause it to follow “n” while others prefer that it precede it. Thus, for example, people who sell Fish and Chips will often announce that they sell Fish ‘n Chips or in some cases, Fish n’ Chips.
Since the apostrophe, when used in conjunction with a contraction, is inserted as a form of lamentation over absent letters, it should ideally both precede and follow the letter “n.” Contractors of “and”, however, live in fear of excess which is why they shorten the “and” in the first place. If they use two apostrophes they end up with three spaces and might has well have left the “and’ alone. Hence the use of only one apostrophe. So much for my defense of the apostrophe. If you have no interest in it, you will be pleased to know that I have no further observations to report. You will also be pleased to know that next week I will attempt to fill this space with more timely topics.