The Misuse of the Apostrophe

I'm not one of those writers who considers herself a grammar geek, though there are plenty of you out there, I know.  I'm more of an intuitive type when it comes to grammar.  But there are a few things that, when misused, make me crazy.  And I want to discuss one of those things today.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Portland, albeit cold, and my husband and I went for a walk to look at all the new construction in the neighborhood.  (We live in an inner-city area full of near-hundred-year-old homes but there's a trend to tearing down old houses and putting up one or sometimes two to replace them.)  We noticed the following sign hanging above the front door of a house:

The Gibson's.

I screamed gasped.  When my husband asked me what was wrong, I proceeded to tell him about how the apostrophe was misused on the sign and that just because you are using an "s" at the end of a word, that doesn't mean you need an apostrophe, too.  You do in some cases, but not all cases.

Why was the apostrophe misused on the sign?  Because it was intended as a plural (as in multiple Gibsons living within the home) as opposed to a possessive (the sign did not denote owning anything).  If the sign had said The Gibson's Home, it would have been correct.  (One could perhaps make a case that the home was assumed, but I think precision in all things is important.)

You see this, don't you?  Please tell me you do, because the mis-use of the apostrophe is rampant, people, and it makes me want to do horrible things to the perpetrators.  The misuse of the apostrophe is so rampant, in fact, that it started to make me doubt myself.  So much so that I looked it up.  And found, yes, that I am right.

A simple way to get this right is to stop and think about what you are writing.  Are you writing about somebody owning something?  (Charlotte's car.) Then use an apostrophe.  Are you writing about mulitiple things? (The Charlottes.) Then please don't freaking use an apostrophe!

After I explained all this to my husband, he allowed as how I was no doubt the most brilliant writer and grammarian on the planet and thus could I please explain the difference between it's and its? And so I did:

it's = it is

its = the possessive

Just remember to ask yourself if you can change "it's" to "it is" and that should solve any confusion.

Are we clear on this now?

What grammar issues do you struggle with?  Are you a grammar nut or a grammar intuitive, like me?

A Short Post on the SemiColon

Awhile ago, I wrote a short post on commas, confessing that it was a short post because I really didn't know much about them. 

One of my writing friends, Anthony (who is not only an amazing writer but a judge, for God's sake) suggested I write a post about semicolons.  Sure thing, I wrote him in an email.

And then I didn't write the post.

Because, guess what?  I think I know even less about semicolons than I do about commas.

But then I decided I liked this short post thing I had going on and that I'd give it a shot.  So here goes.

You use a semi-colon when linking two complete clauses.  (Think of a complete clause as a sentence.  I'm sure there's a more complex definition of it, but if so, I don't know it.  And won't know it.  So let's keep things simple.) 

So, two complete clauses:

The room was elegant and dark.  The woman who sat in it matched the decor.

Linked with a semicolon:

The room was elegant and dark; the woman who sat in it matched the decor.

As far as I'm concerned (and I'm willing to admit I could be wrong) you use a semicolon in circumstances when you want to link the complete clauses in some way.  In the example above, it makes sense to link the two phrases, no? 

But, honestly?  Either style works for me.  True confession: I tend to think of semicolons as a bit stuffy and pedantic.  I rarely use them, to the point that the grammar check on my computer hates me because it corrects my commas with semicolons so often.  Sometimes I put the semicolons in just to make it happy.

Because I have done a relatively lame incomplete job of discussing the semicolon, I present you with these resources to further enhance your understanding of this bit of puncutation.

How To Use a Semicolon (the most feared punctuation on earth).  This post from The Oatmeal is funny, charming, and actually informative.  I highly recommend it.  The author also discusses the theory of the pause in grammar, which is how I do commas.

Semicolon.  I find this Wikipedia page complicated and obtuse, but you might like it.  I'm willing to admit that my dislike of the semicolon is coloring my opinion of it.

The Semicolon.  I can't figure out what this site is, but it features a clear explanation of the punctuation in question.

What are your feelings about semicolons?  Do you have feelings about semicolons?  It's okay if you don't, but let's discuss anyway.



Sharpening Pencils

This morning I was working on my daily 15 minutes devoted to the realization that I have no logic skills whatsoever, otherwise known as solving a Sudoku puzzle, when it occurred to me that my pencils needed sharpening.

Now I'm bad enough at Sudoku without having also to contend with blurry-pointed pencils.  The boxes in which you fill in the numbers are very small, you see, and you need to fit many numbers in each one as you keep track and erase and figure and re-figure.  So you need a very sharp pencil.

I have a container full of pencils conveniently stationed in the kitchen, where the Sudoku madness solving goes on but for some reason the pencils are never sharp.  (Could it be because my son the mathematician uses them to solve math equations?  You tell me.)

So it occurred to me to hie myself down the basement to where we have a good old-fashioned hand-cranked pencil sharpener on the wall, bolted there by previous occupants, many, many years ago.  (The fact that you must walk into the basement, which is dark and scary and full of belongings we don't know what to do with, plus has an open crawl space which you have to pretend to ignore, est the monsters jump out at you if you catch their eye,  might also have something to do with the fact that the pencils are never sharp.)

To get to the pencil sharpener you have to lean way over the washing machine and insert the pencil.  I'd taken a whole handful down with me, hoping to not have to repeat this exercise for quite awhile, not liking monsters real well and having perfecting the art of going a long time without washing clothes, and so I began sharpening the pencils.  And it occurred to me, as I struggled, because it also turns out that sharpening pencils via a hand-cranked pencil sharpener is a bit of a struggle, that sharpening pencils is a bit like writing.


I shall tell you. 

Firstly, if you force the pencil, it doesn't sharpen as well.  You have to hold it ever so delicately without cramming it into the hole.  If you just allow the pencil to rest lightly in the sharpener and crank like crazy, you get a perfectly sharpened pencil.  So, too, with writing.  If you force the words, they never sound right.  You need to learn to relax when you are holding the pencil in the pencil sharpener and you need to learn to relax when you are holding pen in hand to write.  And then crank out the words like mad.

Second, if the pencil gets sharpened unevenly from the beginning, it is difficult, bordering on the impossible, to ever get the damn thing to be sharpened correctly again.  Have you had this experience with writing?  I have.  Until I get the beginning shaped right, I can't write the rest of it.  Even though I am the biggest advocate of letting the words flow on the planet, I can't help it.  The beginning has to be right before the words can flow.  And so too with pencils.

Thirdly, it is really a pain to sharpen pencils, but the Sudoku solving goes so much better when I do.  Its important to have the right tools in writing, and since we don't need much beyond paper and pencil, choose your metaphoric tools wisely–your words and your technique, your craft and your grammar.

So those are the lessons I learned sharpening pencils this morning.  Oh, and one final one–it is important always to be up on current technology.  I'm buying an electric pencil sharpener.