Note: Updated 13:24 p.m. 4/29/21 to address some minor corrections.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly ten years since I wrote a post addressing grammar, mechanics, and punctuation pet peeves. Because I’m doing more editing than writing these days, this seemed like a good time to get a few of these off my chest and onto the internet, where they might do some good. I’m not saying you folks are making these mistakes, just that you should be mindful of them because they seem to be appearing more frequently as our education system continues its downward gyre.
Misuse of Apostrophes
I’ll start off with the situation that prompted this post: the misuse and abuse of apostrophes.
- Plurals: The Joneses, the tomatoes, the squirrels…NO apostrophe. NONE. ZERO. NOT NECESSARY. DON’T DO IT.
- Singular Possessives: Bart’s whiskey, Tim’s starship, NASA’s headache.
- Plural Possessives: The squirrels’ nest, the Chicago Bears’ rotten quarterback.
- Contractions: Hasn’t (short for has not), didn’t (short for did not), would’ve (short for would have). In each of these cases, the apostrophe is there to substitute for the missing letters.
YES, there are some exceptions, such as singular nouns that represent a collective entity (Congress), but the singular possessive apostrophe still applies in that case. When in doubt, look it up.
Another exception you’ll see are words like its, whose, and theirs. These are possessive words that do not require an apostrophe. They’re in the same class of words as his and hers. And no, I have no idea why these words are like this, but they do NOT require apostrophes.
Your vs. You’re
This one should be straightforward, but a friend asked that I address it.
- Your is a possessive adjective, as in your gift, your horse, your lightsaber.
- You’re is a contraction of you are, as in, “You’re quite skillful with that lightsaber.”
I’m seeing a lot of this in the engineering world: sub-system, on-going, re-opens, re-do, e-mail, etc. These words have been around for a while, and they do not require hyphens. Why they’re being written this way is a bit of a mystery to me, but for the record, the following usages are perfectly fine:
Treating Acronyms as Words When Capitalizing Them
This is a pet peeve I have with British newspapers, specifically. They are now writing the acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as “Nasa.” Why? Can one of my UK readers explain this to me?
The Placement of Punctuation
In the U.S., we use the double-hash marks as quotation marks (“). These marks go on the outside of the sentence 99% of the time. The hangups seem to happen when people are quoting others.
Incorrect: He asked me, “Do you know what time it is”?
Correct: He asked me, “Do you know what time it is?”
Often people get tripped up when there is a quotation within a quotation. Example:
I replied, “The polite way to say that is, ‘That appears not to be the case.'”
Note that the period comes first, then the single quotation mark for the quotation within the quotation (yes, essentially that’s an apostrophe for typing purposes), then the double-quotation mark to end the original quoted comment. I understand that UK publishers occasionally do it the opposite way, with the double-quotation marks inside the single. That’s fine, if that’s your style; just be consistent.
Parentheses can be tricky, but there is some logic to them, or so I’m told. They can appear in a couple different places, depending on their intended use. Parentheses are meant to insert additional information that is relevant but not necessarily crucial to understanding a sentence or paragraph.
Parenthetical comment within a sentence:
That run was longer than I expected (1 mile).
Parenthetical comment within a parenthetical statement:
That run was longer than I expected (1 mile (or 1.6 kilometers)).
Parenthetical sentences are slightly different in that the entire statement is an addition. As a result, the period for the statement comes within the parentheses:
That run was longer than I expected. (The actual distance was 1 mile.)
And just to add some additional insight or confusion to your day, my last example contains parenthetical statements integrated with quotation marks. Note that the quotation mark comes after the parenthetical statement because it’s part of the quotation:
She asked, “Did that run seem long to you? (It was only 1 mile.)”
Being Pedantic About Grammar, Punctuation, etc., in Social Media
I do my best not to pick on people for typos in social media forums (Twitter, Facebook) unless it’s just because I found a way to make the teasing funny. Honestly, I make typos on social media all the time, especially if a) I’m typing on my iPhone and b) I’m in a rush. I still make an effort to spell and punctuate correctly in those forums and will go back and correct myself if I catch a tweet or post that’s got an error. I also have an ongoing, so-far-unsuccessful complaint in to Twitter, asking them when they plan to add an “Edit” button. It’s unfortunate that people have given up on treating social media as some lesser form of communication that doesn’t require rules for clarity’s sake. I try to treat my posting as writing, but I understand that others do not.
All that said, if I catch an error in your writing in a written document and I am being paid to edit your work, I will correct it. I won’t go out of my way to be a jerk about it if I catch others in a grammatical, spelling, or other mechanical error when they’re tweeting or speaking aloud (there was a time when I did–naughty!). The world’s unpleasant enough some days, so restrain your urge to be pedantic about your superior knowledge of English grammar. However, if I’m being paid to check your work and you make one of the errors described above, I will be editing said work.