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COLUMN: A peevish punctuation mark

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By Art Trujillo

Perhaps no mark of punctuation — this one among the smallest in the English language — has caused more grief. It’s misuse appears to be what its best noted for.

Let me explain:

The apostrophe (‘), that little cosa that few people are able to master, more than anything else, has caused English teachers to turn in their chalk prematurely and declare, “never again.”

The last time I taught freshman composition at Luna Community College, I may have frightened a coed when I wrote “never again!” on her introductory essay. I’d meant that admonition to refer solely to her habit of writing “it’s” when she meant “its.”

To review: Use “its” when you can use “his.” There’s no apostrophe in “his,” and therefore shouldn’t be used in “its,” which means possession. “It’s” always means “it is.” “Its” is the possessive, as in “The dog ate its food.” Simple.

But that wasn’t so for Angela, my student who may have surmised the “never again” referred to her off-campus behavior. “You don’t even know me, and you’re telling me what I can and can’t do,” she said.

No, not at all. The reference was to grammar, not glamour.

All of us have sat through endless grammar/usage classes wherein we’re lectured on the apostrophe as a possessive. We’re reminded that it’s Jim’s car, not Jims car. But then we turn around and insist that “it’s” is not a possessive but a contraction.

My first year of teaching English was in a homogeneous group of third- and fourth-graders at Christian Reformed Mission in Zuni, N.M. That year I thought up the notion of codifying all the common errors, teaching to those errors, spreading the word, with the idea that in no time at all, there would be no errors in grammar and we’d all write like Shakespeare.

But I never got the categorizing done, failed to spread the word, and there are still grammar errors in the world.

Years later, my realization came true, that students in English classes commit few errors but make the same errors constantly. I once had a freshman comp student at Highlands who wrote quite a good essay about the southern New Mexico high school basketball team he’d played for that consistently broke 100 points a game. Robert, the student, apparently scored 50 of them on several occasions.

His second essay, I noticed, had a bunch of stray marks, which I passed off as carelessness or nervousness. And as we reviewed his paper in my office, I noticed the stray marks appearing before every “s.”

And when I mentioned that he’d omitted several apostrophes, he responded, “No, they’re right there.” “Where?” Well, it seems as if Robert put tiny dots, mere pin-pricks before each “s,” to serve as an apostrophe, in case one was needed.

And what about the superfluous marks, as in “you committed several error’s”? Well, those he called mere stray marks. So Robert attempted to cover all his bases.

Theoretically, people can pass machine-graded tests by filling in every blank. When I tested applicants for U.S. Census jobs in 1999, we’d score the sheets by placing a pre-punched template over each test sheet. And if we failed to notice that every choice was filled in, the applicant might get a perfect score.

The New York Times online edition has a feature called “Schott’s Vocab,” a blog that invites readers to submit their pet peeves in language usage. Would it surprise you to learn that the misused apostrophe factors in many of 1,000-plus entries?

Of course, there are others, and I’m priming my word-processor to write on all that’s implied in the submission by someone named Caroline, who wrote, “In todays society language is used as a unique tool by a writer to get their message across.”

• • •

We in the media, accustomed to lecturing others on proper usage, need to be especially careful with what we write. And some of our typos have received considerable space in this column.

The new local newspaper, The Meadow City Independent, needs to get over its opening-game jitters and smack those incorrect uses of apostrophes. On page 1, below the logo are the words “The Peoples Paper.” P. 2 refers to “Last Weeks Prize,” and on P. 3 is “The Mayors Report.” P. 5 asks, “Whats His Name?” And the heading for Richard Tripp’s column correctly uses the apostrophe in “Who’s Trippin’ Now,” but lacks a question mark.

Nit-picking? I don’t think so. The errors glare, inasmuch as they appear mainly in headlines. There’s too much talent on the staff of the MCI to allow these kinds of errors.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.