Monday, March 24, 2008

The Queens English

Check out (via your click) the handmade sign in the center of this shop window in Jackson Heights. I doubt its creator was an English major, but he has admirably bothered with the inclusion of commas, a colon and some apostrophes.

Let’s consider his use of apostrophes after CD and DVD. I am often tempted to use them likewise. They are probably not necessary. Wouldn’t an upper case CD followed by a lower case s do the trick? In this case, the apostrophe does not denote possession (That CD’s cover is ugly.) or contraction (The CD’s almost obsolete.). It just means that they have more than one of them inside the door. And yet, there is something that draws me to using apostrophes after abbreviations like these. It seems to add a sprightly attractive note to the copy, the purpose of which is to grab my attention and to build desire.

Last night, while writing a recalled conversation I had at Slammer last Friday, I came to the part where a stranger whispered something to me while indicating a passerby. I wrote That guy is a buffet of STD’s. I corrected it to STDs, but it just didn’t look right, so I changed it back, and back and forth a few times. I felt anxiety. I still do. I can’t tell the story until I figure out the right and wrong of this. Lazy, I avoid sentences whose structures are taxing, rather than simply research the governing rules. (Why have I totally forgotten how punctuation works in the vicinity of direct quotation marks? More anxiety. This one too important not to research. It’s like the time I was leading the rosary at a wake, when suddenly, I forgot the words to the “Hail Mary”, a prayer that every Catholic knows by heart from early childhood. Clear out of my head those words went! After a few seconds of total panic, I faked a cough and asked one of the ever-ready pious ladies to take over for me while I went to get water. They may have assumed I was overcome with sorrow for the deceased, someone I had never met. After that, I pasted the text of that prayer, and of the "Our Father", into the cover of my ritual book.)

In any case, if you return to the photo, I’m quite certain that you’ll agree with me about the text on the orange CD in the upper right corner of the vitrine. Star Band’s? I don’t think so, unless Star Band owns El Grupo Ideal.

These and other wonders are to be seen in Jackson Heights, in Queens. (Queen's, as in the Borough of Queens? Or maybe Queens' in reference to the number who live there? Oh dear.)

PS: Here's the rule, although, as the writer notes, some editors and teachers disagree.


Anonymous said...

I guess as I get older I start to mix things up (like the tenses I mixed, in my comment on your previous post). I grow more and more concerned with my fumbling of grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. Rules once memorized, have flown the coop.

I recently saw an episode of 60 minutes, where they did an in depth report on the importance of adequate sleep. A few missed hours causing a host of cognitive problems for most healthy adults. I have decided to blame my poor sleeping habits for my mental decline, and am trying to sleep more. I am hoping it works, so I do not have to search for another excuse...

Birdie said...

As a former English teacher, apostrophes are a pet peeve of mine—not in casual writing so much, but in published materials and expensive signage, it is incumbent upon the editor to proof the text before setting it.

As to the STD's/STDs question: If you are my age (ahem), you were probably taught to include the apostrophe; but nowadays it is correct to exclude it. The English language and its usage is a plastic thing, never the same shape twice. We simply try to use as little effort as possible to convey meaning.

Nice headline, BTW.

Marlan said...

One of the sites I use when I teach is

tornwordo said...

I've been down that mental road too. I've decided that even though CD's is wrong, it looks better, so I put the apostrophe.

Birdie said...

Great site, Marlan. Thanks!

Father Tony, for your questions about quotes:

Anonymous said...

Like birdoparadise, I was taught to use an apostrophe when pluralizing abbreviations. When I started at a magazine in the early 90's, my much older British editor told me to get with the program - it's the 90s. I have left the apostrophes out ever since. Any sense of one or the other convention being right or wrong has long since left me.

Anonymous said...

Now imagine the predicament of non-native speakers. I'll try to keep in mind this simple grammar rule.

dpaste said...

You and Dr. Faustus should have lunch sometime.

See the March 5 entry.

TED said...

No unnecessary apostrophes ever!

The apocryphal apostrophe only looks better to the untrained eye, and the excessive use of apostrophes has gotten so pervasive on the Internet that it would make more sense to underuse than to over use them if there were any doubt. Which there is not.

I've run across plenty of blogs where the author forms almost every plural with an apostrophe. This sort of abuse must be resisted at all costs.

M. Knoester said...

I'm a non-native speaker and I have the unenviable distinction of being a part, with two others, on a mostly British messageboard, of the "Grammar Police".

I'm not that nasty to them, honest, guv'nor!

By the way, interesting observation about Queen's, considering this history lesson from Wikipedia:
"Queens was originally named after Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese-born wife of King Charles II of England. Originally, Queens County included the adjacent area now comprising Nassau County. It was an original county of New York State, one of twelve created in 1683."

Doesn't that imply it should have been Queen's County?

PS. I spent one year in a catholic school when I was 12. Every day was started with the Hail Mary and I never learned it, I faked my way through the entire year.

Gareth said...

I often find myself using the greengrocer's apostrophe in inappropriate circumstances, but it's good to know that using it when using the plural of abbreviations was considered the norm at one point.
I also get confused if a word / names ends in s do you just use an apostrophe afterwards or do you use 's.

I'm so glad Welsh is so much easier on this front.

Stash said...

You should TOTALLY post about Catholic school nuns teaching English grammar, like I experienced it.

Bonus points for including something about diagramming sentence structure. ;)

Gavin said...

I always check with Grammar Girl to see what she says. In this post, she discusses the very topic of CD's and decides it is a style issue.

BigAssBelle said...

having failed high school English x 3, only passing in the end with a D, grammar is one of my weak spots.

the apostrophe, though, is falling out of use and it is a national tragedy. i see a need to launch a campaign to save it.

i also struggle with CDs and 1960s and ATMs. i used to have an AP style manual somewhere, but there was disagreement even there and the terrible thing is that the common misuse ultimately becomes common use.

continue to uphold standards, honey. i'll applaud you verbally, but will probably do so in a form that is grammatically incorrect.