Just in time for Halloween, that oddest of celebrations, I will share with you a story of diabolical possession. This is the story of how an entire town became possessed due to frighteningly terrible punctuation.
Nestled in the northern mountains of New Mexico is the town of Taos. Taos is a beautiful town known for the historical and still occupied Taos Indian Pueblo, its arts and crafts cultural influence on Southwest Arts, and its great skiing. Taos is a favorite tourist spot for visitors worldwide. It is a very nice town—at least it was until it was possessed!
Here’s how I learned the story of how Taos became possessed.
I was teaching a continuing education course on writing mechanics. The students and I were discussing the correct uses of apostrophes. “Apostrophes,” I told them, “are PC: they are for Possessives and Contractions.” This became our central concept for studying apostrophes.
Apostrophes for contractions
First we covered contractions, using the apostrophe to replace missing letters in words. This was the simple part. “Where you remove letters,” I told them, “put in the apostrophe.” We examined several examples.
To make a contraction of “can not,” we removed two letters and put the apostrophe in their place, making “can’t.”
To make a contraction of “you are,” we removed one letter and put the apostrophe in its place, to make “you’re.”
The concept is simple, so we quickly moved to using an apostrophe to make possessives, and during this discussion, I learned how Taos became possessed.
Apostrophes for possessives
Our first examples involved using an apostrophe “S” to show possession by a singular noun.
“This is the ball belonging to Tom” becomes “This is Tom’s ball.”
“Bring me the description of the car” becomes “Bring me the car’s description.”
Our next examples involved using an apostrophe only to show possession by a plural noun ending in “S.”
“This is the ball belonging to the kids” becomes “This is the kids’ ball.”
“Bring me the descriptions of the cars” becomes “Bring me the cars’ descriptions.”
Next, we examined using one apostrophe to show possession by multiple owners.
“This is the ball belonging to Tom and Susan” becomes “This is Tom and Susan’s ball.”
We concluded this discussion by looking at using multiple apostrophes to show possession by multiple owners.
“This is the ball belonging to Tom, and this is the ball belonging to Susan” becomes “These are Tom’s and Susan’s balls.”
Errors using apostrophes
Just for fun, the students and I looked at ways that the apostrophe “S” is misused. The most common misuse, we agreed, is using the apostrophe “S” to make a plural. For example, these two sentences contain this error.
“Editor’s don’t like it when writer’s use apostrophe’s to make plural’s.”
[correct: “Editors don’t like it when writers use apostrophes to make plurals.”]
“Eat pickle’s on hamburger’s.”
[correct: “Eat pickles on hamburgers.”]
We got a chuckle out of these examples, but we had a good discussion around using the apostrophe “S” to write about years and initials used as abbreviations. Though these errors used to be fairly common (and still are!), no apostrophe is needed in the following sentences.
“The 1990s were exciting for owners of small businesses.”
“Your CDs don’t play as well as my DVDs.”
To help the students understand how the apostrophe “S” is becoming increasingly misused, I related several cases where it was used in writing third person singular verbs. This is an error I started to see a few years ago. I don’t understand how anyone can think this is right, but it is becoming more common.
“The swimmer who finishe’s first win’s the race.”
[correct: “The swimmer who finishes first wins the race.”]
“My mother drive’s to the store every day.”
[correct: “My mother drives to the story every day.”]
How Taos became possessed
When we had finished looking at these misuses, one student raised her hand. I called on her, and she asked, “What about using apostrophes for names that end in ‘S’?” What a great question, especially because I had forgotten to cover that topic.
Although I didn’t know it, she had a very specific example to discuss, one that would change forever the goodness I normally felt about punctuation. For me, apostrophes would forever after become the evil bearers of wickedness.
Unaware of her intent, we launched into a discussion of using the apostrophe “S” for names ending in “S.” Following the concept that plural nouns ending in “S” only need an apostrophe, and, by contrast, singular nouns ending in “S” need an apostrophe “S,” we looked at these two examples.
“This is the ball belonging to Chris” becomes “This is Chris’s ball.”
“This is the house belonging to the Joneses” becomes “This is the Joneses’ house.”
She shook her head and said that wasn’t what she was asking about. I felt a stab of fear. A cold feeling, as if a ghost had passed by, entered my soul. I had a sudden premonition of evil about to descend, and it did.
Her supervisor, a servant of the dark if there ever was one, used an apostrophe to possess Taos! According to her, her supervisor spells “Taos” as “Tao’s.” Oh, wicked day! That apostrophe “S” makes a possessive. With one stroke of his pen, one strike on his keyboard, one nick of his pencil, Taos becomes possessive, and the people within, I can only assume, become possessed, possessed by “Tao.”Recoiling in fright, I told her that I had never seen such a fiendish error using the apostrophe. Apostrophe “S” to make a plural is common, and using the apostrophe “S” to make the third person singular verb is becoming common, but this was an entirely new form of punctuation wickedness.For fear of becoming possessed myself, I can no longer visit the beautiful town of Taos. Nor can I use this once-benign punctuation mark, even in correct apostrophe use, without shuddering. Can someone stop this evil curse of mistaken possession? Will the horror ever end?
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