What’s the Point?

The Quotable, the Abbreviated & the
Exception All Vie for the Apostrophe

We should’ve seen this quote-unquote quagmire coming, one would’ve guessed. Some obscure government agency, with a surprisingly slasher’s appetite for apostrophes in geographic names, has banned its use for 113 years, with only five meager exceptions.
Such discriminative zeal has driven self-appointed ‘punctuationists’ to many exclamation marks, preceded by a ‘W,’ a ‘T,’ and a ‘F,’ no dots included. But it’s not even new: the Web already ignores it, and it’s more commonly misplaced than a comma or a semicolon.
But before we get to the latest fracas, let’s review these landposts that can guide or derail communication. In language, music or measure, either written, for breathing or clarifying pauses, they may as well be the edge we still have over the droning of robots and computer-generated speech. But we may have already lost that one.
We mentioned the comma, for instance, fully aware of how dear they’re to linguists and grammarians of almost all tongues. It’s actually amazing how such a small curvy mark can originate so many treatises of its use, praise from academics, and frustration by students, and we’re not even getting into the pompously named Oxford comma.
Then there are the marks that some languages like so much as to place them in the beginning and the end of a sentence, as the Spanish does with the exclamation and the interrogation points. With the added sophistication that they appear upside down, on their second time around. Such a twisted Latin passion, you may wonder.
Albeit often laid at the feet or side of letters, no punctuation above the mores of our times, helping contract full sentences and complex meanings into a few strategically arranged typos. Or go the other way, and get spelled out as a word, as in the case of the arguably most disconcerting of them all: the slash.
Thus, much more could be noted about these ‘accidents’ on the road to understand each other, or completely miss the point. We’d rather recede to the background, though, as some marks seem to be, than to delve into the history and virtue of the hyphen, the ellipsis, and the dashing dash. Thank goodness, and the Internet, for that.

It took James Cameron, not the movie mogul, but the 1700s settler to awake members of the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names out of their slumber. And the plans by the 1,000-plus citizens of Thurman, NY, to honor one of its pilgrims with a peak named after him. They thought that Jimmy’s Peak, or James’ Peak would suit him just fine.
No way, said the committee, clearing cobwebs out of their rulebook. Since President Benjamin Harrison has instituted it in 1890, the committee was partial to only five apostrophe-graced place names, among them, the artist, slash, millionaire, slash presidential retreat Martha’s Vineyard. The fact that foreign-named places are free to use it may help clarify their stance.
See, what the committee takes it as a problem is one of the main functions of the apostrophe: its use as possessive. Since no one should own a public place, they shouldn’t name it as if they do. Or so goes the rationale. The rule was consolidated with Ted Roosevelt’s 1906 standardization of geographic names for federal use. And that was that in the century since the old lion has been gone.
Such rule is fine as far as consistency goes, and works for the practicalities of the Web, but it noisily clashes with a formidable opponent: the English language. Without the apostrophe, names become plural, since the ‘S’ is allowed to stay in the picture. Confusion, naturally, ensues. The committee, however, won’t budge.

About those functions, the apostrophe has a surprisingly ample palette. It serves to signal quotes, when one cannot afford its wealthier cousins, the quotation marks; to accentuate the exception, when italics is deemed too effete to invoke; and to act on behalf of missing letters for the sake of saving space. It’s just not fit, apparently by rule of law, to name names.
Which is just as well. We’re not about to allow an offensive sobriquet to such a friendly mark: snitch. Readers of this blog know how partial we’re about the apostrophe, so much so we don’t even use the double marks, which overstayed their welcome when people found a way to obnoxiously ‘represent‘ them with their fingers.
They call it a ‘typographical mistake,’ that of using one for the others, but we like it, as it’s in us to dabble ever so often into a bit of our own brand of grammatical rebelliousness. We can’t even say that it’s because it saves ink, you know, as in two instead of four marks, as we could just some decades ago, and no, we’re not that old.
But as we said, as far as grammarians are concerned, apostrophes don’t get the kind of ‘noble’ mileage a single comma can lead them to spend, neither now nor ever. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a source of heated debates we’d better not get too deep into it right now. We just like the way it soothes us, when we need to call for an exception.

Which is like to call for foul just so you’d have a second to breathe. While the Web is full of cautious advice about their overuse, and misuse, and abuse, we act natural around it. Some tease catastrophe by invoking rhymes; others are just unsure whether what’s there’s theirs, or just a mirage, the mischievous nature of language, when spoken in silence and reticence.
About that, we’ve said too much already. Let the domestic committees of this and that rule on what they seem so possessive about. Letters and words, even when spoken, are just a representation anyway. We’re sure Jimmy’s or James’ or James’s Peak is still quite beautiful, and the memory of that settler, quite moving.
And apart from those who perished around the mountain, there’s no accident on calling a place after someone who’s been there before. Specially since they’re long gone, whether you call it with an apostrophe, a dash, or an exclamation point, there’s no question about what’s the intent of even naming it. Unless, of course, there’s also a slasher lurking around.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Point?

  1. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    “Slasher’s appetite” – love that J – and the preceded with a W, T & F!!

    Excellently written – absolutely loved this. You write really well, Wesley.

    Ha! Made me laugh again – “on the road to understand each other, or completely miss the point.”

    ‘Effete’ is my word of the day (I’d never heard of that before). I must admit, I did miss some days at school and I know I’m not perfect of grammar, and I live by liking how it sounds – only how it sounds.

    Love grammatical rebelliousness, by the way 🙂


  2. Genie Abrams says:

    A wonderful post! Reminds me of a T-shirt i saw recently. It read:
    Let’s eat, Grandma!
    Let’s eat Grandma!
    Punctuation saves lives.


  3. For a language teacher, this article is fascinating. Love, Micheline


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