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The Poor Apostrophe

Last Friday night I was driving happily home from work when I saw something that immediately agitated my mind! It was an electronic sign advertising the restaurant of the local golf club. The sign read: Kiwi’s cook great lamb! “Not again!” I felt like screaming out loud. I probably did, now I come to think about it.

What the sign said was “Kiwi is cook great lamb”. It doesn’t make sense! So, like a good citizen and responsible primary school teacher, I drove into the nearby BP garage, pulled out my mobile phone and rang the restaurant. I was in a world of pain. What else could I do?

A young man answered the phone and I told him what the problem was. I explained that I was ringing because children learn a lot about literacy from the print around them and it’s kind of important that we get it right when we create a sign.

“Jen, have you rung us before?”

“Umm… actually. Yes, I have,” I replied with a slight chuckle.

“OK. I’ll let the boss know you rang again and we’ll fix the sign.”

I probably should have offered to drop in and give them an apostrophe lesson in exchange for coffee and cake.

So, this very evening, I kid you not, I’m driving along a highway on the Sunshine Coast, and someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make a huge sign because they want to let everyone know who's driving past that they have figs for sale. Unfortunately, the sign said … yes, you guessed it. FIG’S FOR SALE. That means “Fig is for sale”. LOL – one fig for sale! Love it. I don't really.

As a primary school teacher I can’t help feel a bit guilty that there seems to be a punctuation pandemic going on, at least here in Queensland.

We are letting our students down, when as adults, they don’t know that when a noun is plural, that is, when a thing is more than one, the word does not need an apostrophe unless that plural thing owns something, like The girls' bags. If my students don’t remember me for anything else, it will be for showing them how to use apostrophes correctly.

Here’s another recent example. This one took the cake, you could say! Over Christmas, my husband and I enjoyed a lovely break up in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. We found a place that made sensationally delicious scones. I took photos not just of the mouth-watering scones but also of the huge colourful flag signs that the café had displayed outside, waving in the wind. These two eye-catching signs said: Devonshire Tea’s and Devonshire Coffee’s. I kid you not! As you can imagine I was in agony. It almost spoilt the taste of the scones but to my credit I uttered not a single word to the café owner. Those of you who know me well will know how difficult that was for me.

Upon returning home, however, I could stand it no longer and so I sent a simple and hopefully kind email explaining the errors I had seen. To my relief, the owner replied with gratitude and said that she would have the signs removed and corrected. To think that mistakes like this could be printed by a company is really a cause for concern.

I mean, it’s not as concerning as the fact that 2.2 million people worldwide have died in the last year of COVID-19. But, you know, it’s concerning that our education system has let students down when, as adults you own printing businesses or the owners of cafes don't have a clue where to stick this elevated comma.

So, if you’re reading this and feel like it’s something they didn’t teach you at school properly, here’s what I tell my students:

1. If a word is a verb, it doesn’t need an apostrophe. Like: She jumps. Sam eats. Laura laughs.

2. If a word is a plural noun (more than one), it doesn’t need an apostrophe. Like “Figs for sale, girls and boys are playing .”

3. An apostrophe may be an indication that there are one or more letters missing from a contraction which is two words stuck together. Such as “There’s a new president in the White House.” or “We’ve got a lot of masks.”

4. An apostrophe can also show ownership and when it does, it will probably have a noun straight after it, like “Tommy’s bag (the bag belongs to Tommy) or “the butterfly’s wings” (the wings belong to the butterfly).

These are just the basics and obviously it cannot be taught in a day. It’s something that needs to be revised again and again and again and explicitly taught.

So, I’m glad I got that off my chest. A few years ago, I was so sick of seeing the apostrophe misused in public places that I wrote a letter to the prime minister of Australia! Really! I received a lovely reply from his secretary telling me it was indeed concerning and blah blah blah.

The million dollar question for me is, why is this an issue that I’ve only seen pop up in the last decade or so? I don’t remember seeing mistakes like this before in the 1980s and 1990s. Is this a result of an overcrowded curriculum where the essentials are not being taught?

Anyway, if you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem, right? So, I take photos of lots of signs – where the apostrophe has been used correctly and incorrectly and I put the photos in a folder. I show my students these photos and I get them to explain to me if the apostrophes used in the signs in the photos are right or wrong and why. This means that by explaining it to me, they are on their way to understanding. Like look at this recent photo I took, again in Queensland. It's a café that belongs supposedly to either one poet or a group of poets. The poor apostrophe, however, is nowhere to be seen - neither as Poet's Café or, more correctly, Poets' Café (a café that belongs to more than one poet!)

So, before I sign off I’ll have to make sure that the auto-correct on this laptop does not mess things up for me and type: It’s nose was long and thin and it’s mouth was red and cruel. As you know, when the word ‘its’ refers to ownership, we don’t use an apostrophe because it means “It is”.

And there endeth the lesson! Sorry if I bored you to tears but maybe for some of you this is the blog you've been waiting for! I shall continue my apostrophe crusade. At least when I opened my fridge this afternoon, I saw one company that got it right on their jar knowing that the kitchen belongs to Kehoe:

Take care. Stay safe and let me know if you have any great incorrect uses of the apostrophe. I'd love to see them or know about them.


Jen xo

#the apostrophe #the poor apostrophe #punctuation

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