For the Washington/Lincoln holiday (February 22) in the U.S. (now expanded to take in all U.S. Presidents), Clyde Haberman devoted a “NYC” column in the NYT to the apostrophe, starting with the annual puzzle about whether it’s Presidents’ Day, President’s Day, or Presidents Day. Haberman noted the “floating apostrophe” in the name of the holiday and then moved on to the usual catalogue of apostrophe abuses: restaurant bathrooms marked Mens and Womens, welcome mats at the doorstep of The Anderson’s, its/it’s confusions, and more.
There was even the obligatory citation of Lynne Truss, including the wildly hyperbolic punishment she advocates for persistent offenders, who “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave”.
And then, the predictable reaction, in the form of a letter to the editor on February 27 from Karen Baker of Mt. Kisco NY, beginning:
Everywhere, Bad Grammar
Re “Whose Day? Well, at Least It’s Not Who’s,” by Clyde Haberman (NYC column, Feb. 22):
As a middle-school educator, I also bemoan the incorrect use of apostrophes, and I’m not optimistic for the future. Public examples of poor grammar — even from supposedly reputable sources — are increasingly common. How can students internalize apostrophe rules when surrounded by inaccurate models?
Last year, I was appalled to receive a mass mailing from my son’s large, prestigious university prominently titled “Important Reading for Parent’s and Student’s.”
A few weeks ago, I cringed at the beautiful new “Mens” and “Womens” locker-room signs in a recently opened, upscale gym in Westchester.
Goodness knows how many letters the Times got on the subject of apostrophes. Some people collect examples of apostrophe abuse, the web has plenty of sites bewailing it, and it is high on the list of things people peeve about.
First, the header “Everywhere, Bad Grammar” and the reference in the letter to “public examples of bad grammar” — this about a set of spelling errors. Well, It’s All Grammar, apparently; people seem to believe that someone who misuses apostrophes probably uses “double negation”, ain’t, and other non-standardisms, even though the letter cites apostrophe abuse in otherwise “reputable” sources, which a reasonable person would take to be evidence that these details of spelling are separable from control of standard syntax and morphology.
Second, “increasingly common”: I suspect that Baker has merely become sensitive to apostrophe abuse and now sees it everywhere (the Frequency Illusion), though one type might actually be increasing in frequency: the absence of possessive apostrophes on signs, encouraged by the (intentional) dropping of such apostrophes on road signs (and elsewhere in geographical names).