Verbal Energy

How to be possessive about apostrophes

An online primer explains the uses and abuses of a helpful punctuation mark.

A friend of mine has just shared with me a Web page written by someone who styles himself The Oatmeal.

I think I know how she found him in the first place. She embodies, among other fine qualities, a particular combination of tech savvy and enthusiasm for oatmeal. And so I suspect she has a Google Alert set up to keep her au courant on oats.

Can't you just imagine? Hot stories (well, certainly not cold oatmeal stories) such as this: "As the oatmeal-eating demographic shifts, dates and raisins edge out brown sugar, maple syrup." Or "Are steel-cut oats right for you?"

But the reason my "avenivorous" buddy sent this item along to me was that it contains a helpful primer on the use of the apostrophe.

Ah, thou apostrophe! Thou useful but so oft misused mark! (The foregoing is an example of apostrophe in another sense: "address to an absent person or personified thing."

The Oatmeal opus, in the form of a flow chart, walks the would-be punctuator through some basic if/then steps. "Is it plural? DON'T use an apostrophe." Mr. Oatmeal gives examples: "I saw two kittens riding a goat. Goats are great for transportation." Nary an apostrophe in sight! The reader is thus gently guided away from the horrors of "kitten's" or "Goat's," but not harangued.

The guide is available as a poster. I can picture it put up on the walls of workplaces and libraries, the way steakhouses post information on the Heimlich maneuver.

The Oatmeal primer reminded me of Lynne Truss's runaway bestseller of a few years back, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." (What a frisson of delight to describe a book on punctuation as a "runaway bestseller.") Ms. Truss has taken some hits from critics, some of whose own books sell perhaps not quite so well as hers. But she left me with the heartening message that normal people can learn to punctuate correctly. It's not that hard!

The Oatmeal seems much in this spirit. I was a bit crestfallen, though, at his final bit of advice, especially since it appears in VERY BIG TYPE: "When in doubt, leave it out." That rule will probably keep some people from writing "kitten's" or "goat's." But it will probably also encourage them to write things like "teachers college," where I would fight a rear-guard action on behalf of an apostrophe. "Teachers' college" seems to me a straightforward case of plural possessive. If it's not "their" (the teachers') college, whose is it? The counterargument is that the college doesn't belong to teachers but rather produces them. So call it a teacher college!

In the Oatmeal spirit of "just enough" grammar, here are some other rules to use as editorial first aid until a professional can make it to the scene:

1. If you aren't absolutely sure about who and whom, go with who. Use of whom in the wrong place looks much worse than failure to use whom in the right place.

2. Forgo and forego are both real words; they mean "give up" and "precede," respectively. But "forego" (as distinct from foregoing) is almost always wrong. "I will forego you out of the room"? Yeah. Right.

3. Both affect and effect can be either a noun or a verb. But you could probably live your whole life without using effect as a verb or affect as a noun. Many people do – and quite happily, too.

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