Saturday, March 20, 2010

Apostrophe Landfill...grammar THERE'S a hoot?!...

March 20, 2010
Apostrophe Landfill

I’m convinced that there must be a landfill out there somewhere, chock full of our finest grammatical marks, the apostrophe, in particular.

I’m not sure if it exactly started with the runaway British bestseller, Eats, Leaves and Shoots, but I’m sure it was exacerbated by that little tome and our love of all things British.

You see, as you may already know from reading a good number of British-authored texts, visiting the fine country that is England or sharing a family tree with some of the Queen’s citizens, that punctuation and spelling are done quite differently in the land up and over, (as well as other lands like Australia and the like).

I can still see my teenaged self standing at the blackboard – yes, I know, a blackboard, not even a chalkboard – diagramming sentences for all to see. This was particularly challenging as miniskirts were quite popular during my parsing paragraph days, so I spent as much time dragging down my skirt as I did those adjectives and adverbs.

Lately when I attempt to explain soon-to-be-outdated linguistic elements, such as the apostrophe, I hear myself using the dreaded; “Because I said so,” in absolute exasperation when folks want to know why we even need these marks. There’s a stalwart, brave and lonely English teacher in our community (and, no, it is not me) who gives her students extra credit for noting local businesses that have incorrectly punctuated their business signs, leaving out bushels of apostrophes. Unfortunately, this has raised the ire, if not the consciousness of the Parent Teacher Association who own those same businesses.

What happened to "Conjunction Function" and "Schoolhouse Rock," which grammatically indoctrinated our youth from the earliest of ages to accept the fact that they would need to master grammar otherwise they would never get an education, job or relationship? Now that was the way to go, instilling hard, cold fear in place of reason or reasoning in order to bring about the grammatically UNchallenged.

If you think I’m enamored of all things linguistic, writer and Francophile Gertrude Stein was positively in love with grammar, specifically the apostrophe, waxing philosophical when she said, "for some the possessive case apostrophe has a gentle tender insinuation that makes it very difficult to definitely decide to do without it."

It would be a whole different ballgame if we called apostrophes insinuations, wouldn’t it? We could make comments like, “Bob, you seem to have left out the insinuation when you were speaking possessively.” Gertrude was my kind of gal on the linguistic front because she said, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” without a hint of sarcasm. What a hoot she must have been at parties, utilizing piles of napkins as she diagrammed sentences that the revelers would, no doubt, simply shout out at her, randomly.

Now I am a bit ashamed to say that I’m waaayyy out of practice in the parsing of sentences and because I edit my own work on my blog AND because I’m going for a conversational tone, my writing doesn’t always hold up when subjected to the grammar integrity strength test. Having said that, I still miss those grammatical rituals and attendant masteries of my youth and I fear we have not passed this baton on to subsequent generations.

We are now at such a level of apostrophe-deficit in America that we have to rely upon the “old ones,” our babyboomer elders, for information about the proper placement of them, should the mood strike our ancestors of the future to sprinkle these apostrophes back into the marvelous meal that is language.

I don’t know. When you think about it the re-enforcement of apostrophizing is mainly provided by persnickety English teachers and grammatized parents. Maybe apostrophe placement is just a dish best served as cold payback for having had to spend our formative years diagramming sentences. Bon Appétit!

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