The tyranny of punctuation

It seems like it’s the smallest things that lay people low. An insignificant droplet of blood causes the biggest man to collapse into a dead faint at a paper cut.

The tiny word “no” sends a kindergartner into the stratosphere, howling about the injustice of being denied a cookie five minutes before supper is laid upon the table.

A simple three-pointer, if made by the other team at the buzzer, can slay a full one-half of the population of a state.

And so it is with punctuation, particularly the apostrophe.

Apostrophe abuse is rampant in this nation, and I used to feel sorry for the poor little thing. I thought of starting a non-profit to combat its prevalence.  The Apostrophe Abuse Association, I’d call it, and hand out fliers decrying this new menace sweeping the land.

For everywhere I go, I find cases of egregious apostrophe abuse. But as much as I feel sorry for it, I’m beginning to think that it’s the apostrophe itself — and its cousin, the quotation mark — that’s running roughshod over the population and whose tyranny we should fight.

The thing is, the rules are so horribly confusing and completely impervious to memorization that people are scared to frickin’ death of punctuation. Take the sentence in the paragraph above. There are at least a couple punctuation situations that might strike terror in the heart of the causal writer, were they to undertake the superhuman job of writing clearly and simply.

Now, take example from above: “I’m beginning to think it’s the apostrophe itself — and its cousin, the quotation mark — that’s running roughshod over the population.”

Look at that. Two separate instances of a word that may look similar but one has the dreaded apostrophe and the other doesn’t. A real horror show, no?

With that little “now you see me, now you don’t,” the apostrophe terrorizes the land.

Let us now consider the quotation mark. People are paralyzed by them. They have no idea where they go, so they just sprinkle them around indiscriminately, hoping one or two will land in the proper place.

The maker of this sign, however, has risen to new highs of punctuation fear. He’s afraid to use anything except quotation marks. So of course they are used wrong.

This is on the coffee machine where I work. It gives me a little chuckle every time I wander into the kitchen. Clearly, when making out the sign, our man identified that there could be a problem with the word two. (Or “2” as it’s rendered here.)

“What would happen if people thought the cups held two cups of liquid?” he wondered, panic rising. “They’ll be furious when they see the tiny little cups holding 2.62 ounces of liquid and demand their two cups’ worth!”

Then, the light-bulb moment.

“Why, I’ll use quotation marks!” he says, inspiration mixing with wonderment in his voice.

“Then … then they’ll know that there are, in fact, two cup sizes! Not one cup size that holds two cups! They’ll know! I just know they will!”

See, if you wish for something hard enough, it’s bound to come true.

Actually, the correct sentence would read merely “Two cup sizes.” If you were actually offering a coffee cup that held two cups, then you’d write “two-cup portions” or something similar. But like our guy, most people are held hostage by the tyranny of punctuation and, afraid to use the proper one (or none, in this case), they grab for the curlicue, decorative quotation mark to dress up the whole shebang.

Of another instance of the red-hot dictatorial proclivities of the quotation mark, sadly I have no photographic evidence. It was a restaurant with a name something like Krabby O’Mondays (an establishment you’ll recognize if, like me, you’ve seen every episode of Spongebob Squarepants eleventy-million times).

But instead of an apostrophe in O’Mondays, this sign, emblazoned upon the strip mall in four-foot-high letters, read Krabby OMondays. I swear, to quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. When I went back, the sign was down at the business closed. Behold the power of the evil quotation mark.

I’m not fussing at people who have trouble with this, honestly I’m not. I’m just wagging my finger. I’ve got most of the rules literally at my fingertips since I spend a lot of my time writing (they do pay me for it, after all). So, it’s in my interest to know the correct way to convey my meaning so that at least a few people will get the gist of what I’m saying.

Rather, I’m encouraging you to free yourself from the shackles of periods, exclamation points, apostrophes and the big meanie quotation mark. Go ahead, be bold! Use a hyphen between two words when the two words, together, form a single-meaning adjective (like that). Bug-eyed girl. Bitter-tasting coffee. Smug-faced blogger.

And write the word its without fear. You can do it! I have every confidence in you. Its means possessive. But — and this is what makes everyone cower in fear and go crazy — there’s no apostrophe, like in normal possessives. Ellen’s blog. Nobody’s business.

And the reason? Why it’s simple! To distinguish it from the word it’s, which is a contraction. Like don’t. Don’t fear the reaper! It’s means it is. It’s true, I swear. It’s a fact.

So workers, go forth and punctuate. Throw off the shackles of the tyranny of punctuation! You have nothing to lose but your mind.

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6 thoughts on “The tyranny of punctuation

  1. Amongst my other pet peeves is the improper use of I. E.g., I know somewhere I must have a photo of Ellen and I when we worked together.

  2. I can’t ever remember what e.g. is supposed to mean, so I’m probably an offender. When I see it, in my head I always think “Er. Go.” I don’t think that’s right. 😀

    1. That’s okay. I’m still looking for that photo of I.
      E.g. means for example. One of my common mistakes is using i.e. when I should be using e.g., therefore, I rarely use either. : )

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