Tag Archives: Lynne Truss

Apostrophes!

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What an exciting title for a post! It don’t get much hotter than that little upper hook (and not its younger brother, the lower hook, a.k.a. the comma).

For regular readers of this blog, you might remember I did a post about Lynne Truss’s fabulous book on punctuation called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is obviously about panda bears that have a meal, unload their pistols/shotguns, and then take their leave (as opposed to the diet of panda bears, which includes eating bamboo shoots and leaves). And all this confusion because of a single comma!

While there are some fairly straightforward rules to the use of apostrophes in the English language — see the amazing Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for more info on English grammar and punctuation) — perhaps their most confusing use has to do with the Romanization of foreign words.

Take, for example, these three words from Mi’kmaq (the plural of Mi’kmaw, the native peoples most populous in Newfoundland & Labrador, Quebec and Ontario) that have the exact same seven Latin letters, yet mean wildly different things because of the placement of the apostrophe(s).

kesalul — I love you
kesa’lul — I hurt you
ke’sa’lul — I throw you gently into a fire

I, for one, have no idea how to pronounce those three words differently based on their apostrophes, but would be very scared to tell my Mi’kmaw partner I love her for fear that I would be “killing her softly.”

Another example is the old McCune-Reischauer Romanization system, no longer used in South Korea, for the written Korean language, Hanguel (though North Korea still uses a modified variation of McCune-Reischauer). Take a gazing gander at these two examples:

않다 — ant’a — not (some action in the negative)

안타 — anta — a base hit in baseball

You don’t have to be a Machiavellian (i.e. cunning) linguist to see that the two words are spelled differently in Korean. But how the fork you’re supposed to pronounce those two words in distinct ways based on their Romanization is anyone’s guess.

On a final note, is it just me, or has the most egregious use/misuse of the apostrophe in today’s world of constant texting and instant messaging become our tendency to confuse “their” and “they’re”?

UPDATE: From the woman who tweeted about the apostrophe challenge with “I love you” in Mi’kmaw:

there are more people that liked this tweet than there are fluent mi’kmaw speakers.

let that sink in.

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Punctuation Pays! (Now Crime Will, Too)

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Not since Lynne Truss published Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation have I laughed so hard at something so small: an ear-shaped part of punctuation.

Writing for The Guardian, Elena Cresci (@elenacresci) penned a fantastic piece entitled “Oxford comma helps drivers win dispute about overtime pay.” Who, the, what, the, where? The situation basically came down to this:

“In Maine, the much-disputed Oxford comma has helped a group of dairy drivers in a dispute with a company about overtime pay.

In a judgment that will delight Oxford comma enthusiasts everywhere, a US court of appeals sided with delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy because the lack of a comma made part of Maine’s overtime laws too ambiguous.”

Why the big deal, then? Well, consider an example Ms. Truss uses right there in her title. What’s the definition of a panda?

Panda: Eats shoots and leaves.

Panda: Eats, shoots and leaves.

With the former, we’ve got a cuddly bear that consumes bamboo and some shrub leaves. In the case of the latter, we’ve got a gangsta’ bear gone rogue, gun in hand, as it fires away and takes its leave. Done and done yo! Sorry, Done and done, yo!

Another example offered as damning evidence of that damned comma rearing its head (or not) in The Guardian article comes from what appears to be a book’s Acknowledgements section, in which the author wants to thank four special people. Or is it, in fact, two?

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

According to the punctuation, it sure as Shirley looks like the author won the parent lottery and got a Russian-American author as a mother and the Supreme Being as a Father. Sweet!

Anyway, you can read the article for yourself, or not, and then ponder the role and importance of commas, or perhaps ignore the issue, before scratching your head and asking yourself, Does a comma really demand this much respect?

Best ask Oakhurst Dairy for the answer. They’re the ones now on the hook for overtime pay because of that wily pest that, it seems, just won’t, you know, go away, even if you beg it to just fall into a coma, or maybe…

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