Setting the Standard for American’s Everywhere

Recently, I was reviewing a document that claimed a staff member was “most likely to set the turtleneck standard for American’s everywhere.” (Don’t ask.) Anyway, as soon as I saw “American’s,” I knew what my next blog topic had to be: the apostrophe.

The apostrophe (‘) is a punctuation mark used to indicate possession (“Mindy’s blog”) or the omission of letters or numbers (“can’t” or “class of ‘75”). This particular blog is going to focus on the rules related to possession. There are a number of them, so bear with me.

Rule #1: To show possession of a singular noun, you add an apostrophe + “s”:

  1. The bulldog’s underbite is his best feature.
  2. Mindy’s Cheetos await her return. (Don’t even think about touching my Cheetos.)
  3. Mr. Eadeh’s house has three refrigerators.
  4. It always comes down to the boss’s prerogative.

That last one looks weird, right? The fact is, there are a number of common nouns ending in the letter “s,” like “cactus,” or “syllabus.” Same goes for proper nouns, like the last names “Holmes” or “Tines.” There are conflicting rules about how to treat these. One common method many magazines and newspapers use adds an apostrophe + “s” to common nouns ending in “s” but an apostrophe only to proper nouns ending in “s.” I favor this method as well. Here are a few examples:

  1. The cactus’s needles were sharp.
  2. The class’s hours were long.
  3. Mr. Tines’ new dog attacked the kindly, unsuspecting painter.
  4. Nicholas’ desk was a mess.

Rule #2a: To show possession of a plural noun, put an apostrophe after the “s”:
Some plural nouns end in “s,” like “girls” and “dogs.” Others end in “es,” like “actresses” and “nurses.” Here are a few examples of plural possession:

  1. Girls’ night out
  2. Actresses’ roles

Rule #2: Do not attempt to make a word plural by adding an apostrophe + “s.”
When you make a word plural, you never need an apostrophe. You simply add the “s” or “es.” This trips a lot of people up, however, and before you know it, they’re penning phrases like “most likely to set the turtleneck standard for American’s everywhere.” (It should be “…Americans everywhere.”)

I see this a lot with the word “Christmas.” Instead of “I’ve spent many Christmases with my family,” some opt for “…many Christmas’s.” But the biggest culprits are proper names.

Quick quiz: which is correct?

  1. The Kroll’s are here.
  2. The Krolls are here.

That would be “B.” But how about this one?

  1. The Holmes’ are here.
  2. The Holmeses are here.

That, too, would be “B,” odd as it might look. Same goes for “Joneses,” “Sanchezes,” and other proper nouns ending in “es” or “ez.” You might want to add an apostrophe; you might even be convinced you need an apostrophe. But you don’t.

But what about….?
Irregular nouns?
Some nouns become plural by changing their spelling. “Person” becomes “people.” “Child” becomes “children.” “Tooth” becomes “teeth.”

For these, you add an apostrophe and an “s,” like:

  • Children’s toys
  • People’s court
  • Teeth’s roots

When two people possess the same item?
This is simple. You put the apostrophe and “s” after the second person’s name only. So you get:

  • Dan and Stacy’s dog
  • Steve and Mindy’s Cheetos (mostly Mindy’s)

So there you have it—everything I can think of related to apostrophes and possession. I’ll be back in a few weeks with an as-yet-unidentified topic. In the meantime, do apostrophes trip you up? Do you ever try to make a word plural by adding an apostrophe? And what else would you like to see covered in this blog?

Word of the Week: Scurrilous
Song of the Week:Possession,” by Sarah McLachlan

Dashes: The Long and the Short of Them

The em dash (—) is my favorite punctuation mark. It’s just so versatile. It emphasizes. It separates. It interrupts. What more could you want from a punctuation mark?

Turns out, not everyone feels the way I do. A friend of mine recently suggested that we abandon the em dash in favor of the en dash (–) because “the em dash takes up too much space.”

It’s true. The em dash takes up more space, but sometimes you need that space. And it’s not as if the uses overlap. There are clear distinctions between the em dash and en dash. Here’s the long and the short of it.

The em dash
The em dash has a number of uses. The reason I love it so much—and you can look at any example of my writing and find evidence of this—is because it allows an additional thought to be added within an otherwise complete sentence. See what I did there? I provided an example smack dab in the middle of my explanation. Talk about economy of words.

It can also provide emphasis at the end of a sentence—like I’m doing right here. Finally, it serves as a substitute for interrupted dialogue. For example:

“I wasn’t trying to imply the em dash was unnecessary—”
“Yet you did.”

The en dash
En dashes have one main use: connecting items in a range. Here are a few examples:

  • The interview with Jim Martin is in the May–June issue of Pumpkin Grower magazine.
  • You can find it on pages 22–25.
  • It’s hard to believe he was the guitarist in Faith No More from 1983–1993.

But what about the hyphen?
It seems wrong, somehow, to omit the hyphen (-). However, it’s not really germane to this conversation, and it’s a complicated mark, deserving its own article. For now, let’s just acknowledge that it should never be used interchangeably with either the em dash or the en dash.

One more thing…
It occurred to me that some people may not know how to signify em and en dashes in Word. For the em dash, simply hold down the “Alt” key and type “0151.” For the en dash, hold down the “Alt” key, and type “0150.”

So how about you? Do you discern between em and en dashes? Why or why not? And how do you feel about the word “utilize”? Spoiler alert: I hate it.

See you next time!

Word of the Week: Germane
Song of the Week: 100 Yard Dash, by Raphael Saadiq

Who Gives a !@#$ About an Oxford Comma?

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” —Lynn Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”

Last Sunday, I was at Las Palapas, my favorite Mexican restaurant. (If you live near Livonia, Michigan, and you haven’t been, go now. It’s that good.) I was skimming through the menu when I came upon “Enchiladas Supremas,” described thusly: “Five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean and cheese.” I was perplexed; the menu claimed five, but I only counted four—until I realized that bean and cheese were separate enchiladas, and whoever wrote the menu had chosen to exclude the Oxford comma.

The Oxford (a.k.a. serial) comma is the comma between a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “for,” “yet,” and “so”) and the final item in a list. In the example above it would look like this: “The restaurant serves five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean, and cheese.” It’s called the “Oxford” comma because it was traditionally used by writers and editors at the Oxford University Press. And it’s considered “stylistic,” which means some people use it while others don’t. Both camps are passionate about their positions.

Proponents of the Oxford comma (like me) believe it provides clarity; those opposed to it believe it unnecessarily clutters up a sentence. I thought we’d take a quick look at some examples each camp points to in order to make its case.

Oxford Comma Enthusiasts
The best way to illustrate why I’m such a staunch advocate of the Oxford comma is through sample sentences. So consider this pair:

  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider, and Catherine Bach.
  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider and Catherine Bach.

In the first instance, I’m taking a photo of my parents with ‘80s “legends” John Schneider and Catherine Bach. In the second, I’m taking a photo of my parents, who happen to be Bo and Daisy Duke. Awkward. (By the way, if I were to be associated with anyone from that show, I’d skip the Dukes altogether and adopt Flash.)

Here’s a similar instance:

  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King, and Slash.
  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King and Slash.

See the problem? Stephen King and Slash are not my best friends (although I’d have no objections to adding them to my inner circle).

Bottom line: I adore the Oxford comma because it organizes words into neat little clusters. You don’t have to question whether you’re getting one burrito with beans and cheese or two separate burritos—one containing only beans and one containing only cheese.

Oxford Comma Opponents
For this group, the argument comes down to overuse and pacing. Consider this quote from the New York Times style guide: “…too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader.”

To which I respond, good. People are moving too quickly these days anyway. If having an extra character forces us to pause and maybe even think about what we’re reading (or, more likely, skimming), I’m all for it.

As for overuse, I can’t argue there. But they’re overused because they’re used incorrectly, either arbitrarily placed into sentences where they don’t belong or enablers of run-on sentences. Take this sentence from a book called “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson: “I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.” No wonder people get sick of the comma. (That book was nominated for a Pulitzer, by the way….)

But before I conclude this encomium on the Oxford comma, I do have to admit that it can, occasionally, be problematic. Take this example from an interview with Joe, one of Plante Moran’s retired partners: “The three most important mentors in my life were my father, Frank Moran, and my high school football coach.” Similar to the Bo and Daisy Duke example, readers could incorrectly assume that Joe’s father was Frank Moran. Including the Oxford comma is misleading. But instead of eliminating it, we simply numerated the list: “…(1) my father, (2) Frank Moran, and (3) my high school football coach.” (My frienditor also notes that we could have simply reordered the list: “…my father, coach, and Frank Moran.” As usual, good point.)

So what do you think? Are you a proponent of, opponent of, or simply indifferent to the Oxford comma? And did you know that Vampire Weekend actually wrote a song about it? They did. Check it out below. (But be warned—the first line contains a pretty distinct F-bomb, so you might not want to play it at work/around kids.)

Word of the Week: Encomium
Song of the Week: “Oxford Comma,” by Vampire Weekend

Here He Is, Your Komodo Dragon

One of my favorite movies is “The Freshman,” a 1990 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando in which Brando parodies his Vito Corleone character in “The Godfather.” The plot is complex, but it involves a college student who becomes entangled with the Mafia and is “pressured” (as only the Mafia can pressure) into capturing and serving up endangered animals—including a Komodo dragon!—at parties costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a head. (Don’t worry—the Komodo dragon survives unscathed.)

Late in the film during one such party, longtime Miss America pageant host Bert Parks sings a version of “There She Is” as the dragon is revealed to the would-be diners. It goes like this: “There he is…your Komodo dragon; there he is, one of eight. With so many species, he took the town by storm with his continental taste and charm….” I love this scene. Something about it—it makes me laugh every time I see it. If you haven’t seen “The Freshman,” look it up. It’s awesome.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my second-favorite punctuation mark, the semicolon; today I thought I’d write about my favorite—the em dash. Steve once said he could immediately tell if an article had been written by me simply by noting the presence or lack of em dashes. While I’d rather have my writing identified by my singular voice, if it has to be synonymous with a punctuation mark, let it be the em dash. After all, like me, it’s versatile, useful, and has a flair for the dramatic.

The em dash (—), appropriately, is used to provide emphasis. It can stand in place of the comma, parenthesis, or colon, depending upon the circumstances.

Let’s start with the colon.
The em dash can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize the end of your sentence. It adds a certain flair, or drama, that a colon lacks. Consider these two sentences:

  1. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick: “Star Wars.”
  2. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick—“Star Wars.”

The colon alerts you that more information is coming. The dash, on the other hand, emphasizes that information. It’s a stronger statement. No way is Steve going to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie when the fate of the galaxy is at stake!

On to commas and parentheses.
A parenthetical phrase (one that’s not essential to the framing sentence) can be set off by commas, parentheses, or em dashes. Deciding which to use depends upon how much emphasis you wish to place on the interrupting content. Commas ascribe the least amount of emphasis and—as you can probably intuit—em dashes ascribe the most. Regardless of what punctuation you use, to be an appropriate parenthetical phrase, you must be able to remove the content in between the punctuation marks with no detriment to the rest of the sentence. Consider:

  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies, all six of them, I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies (all six of them) I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies—all six of them—I’m not looking forward to a seventh.

You can see my irritation grow with each sentence, and the only thing that’s changed is the punctuation. (Note, also, that you can remove the verbiage between the punctuation, and the sentence still makes sense.)

So what does this have to do with the Komodo dragon? Because, as I started to write this, I thought of that scene in “The Freshman” and, suddenly, “There She Is” was in my head. Only, in my excitement to write about my favorite mark, I modified it: “There it is, my beloved em dash. There it is, so ornate.” It reminded me of the Komodo dragon song, and the juxtaposition was too good not to share.

Am I the only one who does this—replaces well-known song lyrics with new lyrics to suit a certain situation? What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And, if you’ve seen “The Freshman,” what did you think?

Word of the Week: Juxtaposition 
Song of the Week: The Freshman, by The Verve Pipe