From time to time your editor will post articles of general interest here. In alphabetical order, the following articles, essays and rants are listed here:
It's an Apostrophe, Not an Apatosaur!
Copyright 2012 GSC Editing; Article revision 4/20/2012
Presented by Editorisaurus Rex, Your Editor
USING THE APOSTROPHE, IN A NUTSHELL
At the risk of mixing metaphors, it's a lot easier to use an apostrophe in a nutshell than an apatosaur in a nutshell. And for that reason, apostrophes need not be looked upon with fear, uncertainty or doubt.
In English, apostrophes have very limited uses, and these uses can be memorized with just a little bit of effort.
1. Apostrophes mark the omission of letters in a contraction. Let me repeat that: apostrophes mark the omission of letters in a contraction. They DO NOT mark the point at which the words in the contraction are joined. For example:
"would not" becomes "wouldn't", NOT "would'nt"
"have not" becomes "haven't", NOT "have'nt"
Using "can not" to "can't" wouldn't work as a good example of the above rule because while the apostrophe in "can't" represents the omission of the "no" from "not", it also, coincidentally, falls at the point where the words are joined. In fact, for most contractions, the fact that the apostophe coincidentally falls at the point where the words are joined is what can lead to the confusion of its purpose. Don't be confused. Put the apostrophe at the point of omission.
Nonstandard contractions: Some contractions not only have missing letters, they also have vowel shifts, a completely different concept in linguistics. For example:
"will not" becomes "won't" (because the original contraction was from "woll not")
And "won't" also points out one other irregularity: When multiple points of omission occur in a contraction, the apostophe is usually shown only for the final omission. In the "won't" example, the missing double-ells would theoretically have us write "won't" as "wo'n't", which is today not done.
There are still, however, a few words in the English language that have multiple apostrophes to indicate multiple omissions. Fo'c'sle (forecastle) is one. Some dictionaries even have the preferred spelling as fo'c's'le (!).
And, lastly, sometimes contractions are created for speaking convenience. Many dictionaries won't have "what'll", even though it is short for "what will", as in, "What'll you have?"
2. Apostrophes show possession. No, not by some demon, though a T-shirt tesselated with apostrophes and worn by one of your wackier friends might call this into question. We're talking about ownership here. For example,
would refer to books owned or in the possession of John. At first glance, it might appear that the apostrophe here also marks a contraction, viz., of "John his books," an old way of showing possession, to "John's books." At one point, your editor also believed this, but this is apparently not true. According to the following Wikipedia articles, the apostrophe indicates the omission of the "e" from the old Anglo-Saxon "es" suffix in its now-forgotten genitive case, and this predates the "John his books" construction:
For singular nouns ending without an "s" sound, the possessive is formed by adding apostrophe-s "'s", as in John's books, the girl's ring, the cat's litter box, the NRA's lobbyists, and so forth. Singular nouns ending in an "s" sound can still use the "'s" addition, but if you wish to avoid a repetition of "s" sounds, they can also have their possessive formed by simply adding the apostrophe, as in the boss' desk (boss's desk), Ellis' restaurant and torus' curvature.
At one time, your editor thought that the use of the apostrophe alone in constructions like boss' desk, Ellis' restaurant, and so forth was a recent invention--another mark of modern laziness or sloppiness. Yet he found this practice endorsed in the 1919 edition of Advanced Lessons in English Grammar, by Wm. H. Maxwell, M.A., Ph. D. The volume even includes the horrid-to-the-eyes example, "for conscience' sake." It also advises that the apostrophe-only practice is particularly frequent if the noun is multisyllabic, as e.g. in "Euripides' plays."
For plural nouns ending in an "s" or "s" sound, use the apostrophe alone: the Joneses' house, the foxes' den. For plural nouns not ending in an "s" sound, add the normal apostrophe-s: women's clothing, men's cologne, children's tricycles.
For compound nouns, possession is shown on the last word only, e.g., father-in-law's grumpiness. (This is in contrast to the process of making a compound noun plural, in which case the first word is changed: fathers-in-law.) My 10th edition Harbrace College Handbook even has this multi-word noun example: "George Heming, Jr.'s reply." Usually a suffix like "Jr." or "Sr." would be set off by commas; in this case, the second comma vanishes.
Distinction of ownership is sometimes important. For example, "Sally's and John's dolls" implies that Sally and John each individually own dolls. "Sally and John's dolls" refers to the dolls owned jointly by Sally and John. Note that the construction "Sally's and John's doll" makes no sense, as they can't individually own the same doll.
Lastly, there is the idiomatic construction, "an xxx of yyy's," as in "a bust of Lincoln's," distinct from "a bust of Lincoln." In the former case, "a bust of Lincoln's" refers to a head-replica owned by Lincoln. The latter case, "a bust of Lincoln," refers to a head-replica of Lincoln himself.
3. Apostrophes are used as single-quote marks when designating quotations within quotations. As in, "John told me, 'I borrowed your car and put a dent in it.'" Yes, technically, single-quote marks are not the same as apostrophes, but because they are visually almost indistinguishable, and because keyboard apostrophes have been used for a long time as single-quote marks, I mention this use here. Note that some British texts use single-quotes first, with double-quotes used for quotations within quotations. For a real good exemplar of multi-level quotation usage (down to level 4!), see Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. Don't read it--it's an overlong short story that rambled out of control--just look at the dialog.
4. Apostrophes are used to separate the symbol from the "s" in the pluralization of symbols. As in PC's, *'s, the i's in the previous sentence, the 3's in Jack's license plate, and so forth. Apostrophes are also used to pluralize abbreviations ending in periods, e.g, "too many e.g.'s" or "the V.P.'s crowded around the chairman of the board, sucking up like a pack of unweaned puppies." Lastly, apostrophes are used to pluralized words used as literal words, e.g., "you can simplify prose by getting rid of unnecessary that's and which's."
THESE ARE THE ONLY CURRENT USES FOR APOSTROPHES UNDER THE SUBJECT OF PLURALIZATION. PERIOD. Person's who use apostrophe's for pluralization should be assigned a nonet of nun's with ruler's for rapping knuckle's with. Truly. (Side note: At one time in history, apostrophes were used in the construction of ordinary plurals, something that created much confusion with their use in showing possession, and that's why we don't use apostrophes for that purpose today.)
There is one more use for apostrophes. Your editor hesitates to mention it, as he fears an onslaught of hate mail, light sabers and photon torpedos. Nonetheless, truth, honor, and all he holds holy require that he impart this dreaded bit of information to you:
5. Apostrophes are used to alienize the names of extraterrestrials in bad science fiction.
A. Apostrophes are not used with predicate-adjective possessive pronouns, such as his, hers, its, yours, theirs.
B. One may speak of one's self. However, the word oneself does not have an apostrophe AND DOES NOT HAVE A DOUBLE-S.
The Onto-logical Argument
Copyright 2012 GSC Editing; Article revision 4/22/2012
Presented by Editorisaurus Rex, Your Editor
THE INTERNET ABUSE OF LANGUAGE: "ON TO" vs. "ONTO"
If you see something used incorrectly often enough, it eventually becomes difficult to remember what the correct usage was to begin with.
Lately your editor has seen the incorrect use of "onto" for "on to" creep from the internet into books and even newspaper headlines--places where there are still--occasionally!--editors at work.
This must be stopped.
Unlike "cannot" for "can not", "onto" is NOT a contraction of "on to".
DEFINITION OF "ONTO"
"Onto" is a preposition that not only means "on top of," it implies a motion, or movement, toward the object of the preposition. For example, we can say
The cat is sitting on the dresser.
The cat jumped on the dresser.
The cat jumped onto the dresser.
In English, we take the latter two sentences to be pretty much identical, and that's fine. The last sentence gives, to your editor's eyes, a bit more of a dynamic picture of the cat's action. The use of "onto" may also be a bit clearer, on occasion, in describing what happened. For example, the two sentences
Billy jumped on the sofa.
Billy jumped onto the sofa.
are not exactly synonymous. "Billy jumped on the sofa" may mean that Billy just jumped about on the sofa (the trampoline was unavailable). The latter sentence implies that Billy jumped onto the sofa and stayed there, at least for a bit.
Now let us move on to the grody misapplications!
GOOD EXAMPLES OF BAD EXAMPLES
#1: Now let us move onto the grody misapplications!
Unless "grody misapplications" are things you can physically get on top of, this sentence makes no sense. Note that in the correct sentence, the "on" belongs with the word "move" and the "to" begins a prepositional phrase.
#2: As we lowered him to the street, he held onto the rope.
Again, this is horrid. Holding the top of the rope makes no sense. We can say, "he held on to the rope," or even "he held on to get down safely." We wouldn't say, "He held onto get down safely," would we?
#3: Let's hope she doesn't catch onto what we're doing!
Ugh. "Catch on" is the separate idiom. Also, it would be hard to physically get on top of "what we're doing" unless the genre being written tended toward the erotic.
Despite the above examples, getting a good mental grip on just how and when "onto" is misused can sometimes be a slippery business. Let's look at some equivalent misconstructions.
We took the puppy in to keep him from starving.
We wouldn't write this as
We took the puppy into keep him from starving,
would we? Same miscue as with "onto".
Even more directly, consider
He took the elevator up to the fourth floor.
We wouldn't write this as
He took the elevator upto the fourth floor,
would we? Of course not. This is even more apparent because "upto" is not coincidentally a word.
TO ARMS, TO ARMS!
Your editor hopes this mini-rant has given you some food for thought. Remember, we writers are civilization's last rear-guard action against total collapse. Prose must remain clear!
Regarding "Prose must remain clear!" If you're writing a first-person narrative, you're going to be limited to the education and language level of your protagonist and must present the narrative in a correlating fashion. This exception is noted, permitted, and even required.