'on it's last leg's

January 03, 1994|By C. W. Gusewelle

IT'S a crying shame, what's happened to the apostrophe.

When archaeologists come to poke through the rubble of what used to be our civilization, they will find it wasn't the polluters, the regulators or the politicians that brought us down.

What got us in the end was the kind of intellectual untidiness of which wandering and missing apostrophes are but one notable symptom.

Seasons Greetings, reads a banner over a store entrance. Which season? All of them?

Fresh tomato's.

Give the cat it's toy.

Hello again from the Jenkin's.

The baby is mine and hers'.

Evidently educators, who strive against great odds to inculcate the minimal standards of literacy and arithmetical competence, have given up altogether on the subtleties of punctuation.

The comma has fallen into disfavor. The colon is but vaguely understood, and the semicolon is an artifact of a vanished time.

But apostrophes are the most dangerous of all. They come at you like the stray bullets fired off in happiness at a Middle Eastern wedding reception. No harm is intended, but sometimes innocents get hit.

The rules are simple, if one has taken the trouble to learn them. If not, the terror must be very great.

Writers bend to their work, and it is going nicely. They are charmed by the felicity of their phrases. Then, finding by unhappy chance that it is necessary to use a noun or a pronoun ending in the letter "s," they are seized by fits of fear and trembling.

Is the word a plural, a possessive, or, heaven forbid, that dreaded combination of the two, a plural possessive? Might it conceivably be a contraction? Or maybe none of the above?

The brow furrows, beaded with sweat. Dare the terminal "s" be left hanging there, unacknowledged and unprotected? That's possible, of course. On the other hand, it might be prudent to signify that one at least knows of the existence of the apostrophe, if not of its function.

So on the general principle that it's better to act decisively -- to do something, even if it's wrong -- than to do nothing at all, the poor baffled devil fires one of them off, relieved to have done it and taking no particular responsibility for where the mark falls.

It would be a matter of no consequence, except for the habit that ignorance has of finding its way into general usage, and then becoming accepted, and acquiring finally the dignity of a rule.

The process is driven by a fuzzy egalitarianism -- the notion that, since people obviously differ in their ability to perform certain tasks, it is not so important to get things right as to feel good about oneself while getting them wrong.

And the easiest way to achieve that, of course, is simply to change the definition of right.

It has happened to written language, to spoken language and to much of what passes for popular music -- not to mention matters of public and private behavior, political accountability, parental responsibility, reciprocal loyalty in the work place and the like.

The standards, having become uncomfortable, are discarded in favor of less confining notions of acceptable conduct, eliminating any need for regret.

I predict that the apostrophe, which clearly is an elitist nuisance, will over time disappear altogether. And that the comma, the period, and even the concept of the structured sentence will follow. So that our discourse will become a garble, our ideas (if we have any) uncommunicable, and our history irretrievable.

And will it feel good? I rather doubt it.

C. W. Gusewelle wrote this for the Kansas City Star.

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