July 19, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Apostrophes & misnomer or mistake

Posted in apostrophe, misnomer/mistake at 6:20 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Apostrophes

A reader writes:

Too many apostrophes:

“The plantation, and Josiah Carter, were owned by a man named Hill Carter (traditionally, slaves used their master’s surname). Hill Carter was a cousin of Robert E. Lee’s, who often visited Shirley and whose wife, Mary Custis Lee, took refuge with Hill in 1861 after fleeing their home in Arlington, Va. Growing up, Josiah would have known the Lee’s and their children, a total of three future Confederate generals.”

 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/16/ironclad-freedom/

The second instance above is just a sloppy error.  The first instance is an error but probably not arising from sloppiness but from ignorance.  I believe you discussed this once before, but maybe it could use a reprise.

Happy to oblige; apostrophes can be troublesome. So much so, that there are numerous movements to abolish the apostrophe altogether. And at times, it has been banned. Even the U.S. Government has had a hand in it. According to Richard Nordquist, an English and rhetoric professor emeritus, on About.com:

Pikes Peak, named after explorer Zebulon Pike, lost its apostrophe in 1891. That was the year that the newly formed U.S. Board on Geographic Names outlawed this seemingly innocent mark of punctuation: “The possessive form using an ‘s’ is allowed,” declared the Board, “but the apostrophe is almost always removed.”

While federal maps and signs generally exclude the apostrophe, it isn’t universally true: we have Harpers Ferry, of course, but we also have the lovely Martha’s Vineyard.

[ASIDE: One particular irritant for me, is the name of a local institution affiliated with the University, Magee Womens Hospital. The lack of the grammatically-needed apostrophe sets off spellcheckers and grammar checkers and makes writing grant proposals that include that institution a bit of a pain. It drives me crazy.]

There are entire organizations and societies established to ban the apostrophe, but there are also organizations and societies whose sole function is to protect this piece of punctuation. I am not going to join the fray—my message is that since the apostrophe is still in use, use it correctly!

Here are the rules for using apostrophes:

1. Use the apostrophe to show possession.

The School’s distinguished record of research accomplishments in areas of health services and outcomes re­search has contributed to the University’s overall reputation.

2. Use an apostrophe to indicate that a letter is missing in a contraction.

There isn’t sufficient information to decide whether the experiment was preformed correctly.

3. Use the apostrophe for creating the plural of single, lowercase letters.

The classic example is to mind your p’s and q’s.

The reason for using apostrophes, here, is that it might be difficult to understand the meaning without the apostrophe:

The classic example is to mind your ps and qs.

See.

That’s pretty much it. It used to be that acronyms, capital letters, decades, and numbers used apostrophes in their plural forms, but that is no longer true.

We’re going to try and get all the CEOs to sit down together and talk it out.

On my report card, I have 4 As, 2 Bs, and a D.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Berlin Wall was torn down.

There were more 6s in the puzzle than any other number.

One of the most common mistakes people make is to use the apostrophe to create plural words. DON’T. The only exception to that rule is rule #3, above.

The other thing that is often confusing to people is ‘it’s.’ We see the apostrophe and think ‘possessive’; however, the use here is as a ‘contraction,’ and ‘it’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is.’

To get back to the reader’s initial example, it should read as follows (the bolded areas are the corrections):

“The plantation, and Josiah Carter, were owned by a man named Hill Carter (traditionally, slaves used their master’s surname). Hill Carter was a cousin of Robert E. Lee, who often visited Shirley and whose wife, Mary Custis Lee, took refuge with Hill in 1861 after fleeing their home in Arlington, Va. Growing up, Josiah would have known the Lees and their children, a total of three future Confederate generals.”

There you have it.

Tip 2: Misnomer or mistake

A reader writes:

I just saw this in the New York Times. What do you think?

But he said it was important to pay attention to risk. “A huge misnomer is I’m going to start a captive and save a lot of money next year,” he said. “You might not set aside enough money to pay for the claims down the road.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/your-money/a-captive-insurance-company-offers-financial-benefits-if-not-abused-wealth-matters.html?ref=todayspaper

My first thought was, “I’m going to start a captive…” What the heck is a captive? I had to check out the article to find this out, and I saw this in the article:

A captive insurance company is essentially a private insurer that is a wholly owned subsidiary of another company.

Okay, that explains that. But what was the reader concerned about? Then, I saw the word, ‘misnomer,’ and I knew what the problem was. This error is very common, but it is one that I really don’t want you to make because it makes the speaker or writer look intellectually deficient. (Does that sound okay? I looked up synonyms for ‘stupid’ because I did not want to come out and say that.)

This is the common error: many people, and the speaker in that article is one, believe that ‘misnomer’ is synonymous with ‘mistake.’ It is not. This, in itself, is a mistake. It is related, but misnomer is a name or term that is incorrect.

It’s a misnomer to call that old broken-down wreck a luxury vehicle.

Remember when we first started the wlut, I told you that there are a lot of good online dictionaries, but stay away from YourDictionary.com because it is wildly inaccurate. I just want to reiterate that. I googled ‘sentences using misnomer’ to see if I could find some quotes for you, and I didn’t notice that one of the listings was from YourDictionary.com. The site provided eleven sentences, and ‘misnomer’ was used incorrectly in seven. Moreover, one wasn’t even a sentence. Kids, please stay away from this site. Calling YourDictionary.com a dictionary is a misnomer if there ever was one! Here is just one example:

It is a common misnomer that gray squirrels hibernate.

Oy.

Back to our discussion. The reader made me think about something else. Is the Times in any way obligated to fix something that is clearly an error? Or are quotations sacrosanct? When I see a typo or a mistake in grammar in readers’ letters, I generally fix it. But why would the NY Times let something like this stand? Maybe their copy editor missed it. What do you think?

4 Comments »

  1. Michael said,

    “Is the Times in any way obligated to fix something that is clearly an error?”
    This sentence appears in the last paragraph of your piece. Please explain why “clearly” is correct. My understanding is that an adverb modifies or limits an adverb or another verb with the exception of any form of the verb to be.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Adverbs also modify adjectives like ‘wrong’ as it is doing in the sentence you quoted. I have never heard about an exception of the verb ‘to be.’ I was unable to find such an exception when I looked for it, and the sentence, above, is definitely correct. (‘Definitely’ is an adverb modifying the adjective, ‘correct.’)

      • Michael said,

        Look again at the sentence. There’s no “wrong” there. In fact, there’s no adjective at all only “an error.” Therefore the adverb must be associated with the verb in the sentence. Seems to me this example, as written, is similar to the difference between “I am good” and I am well.”

      • dlseltzer said,

        You’re right. I read it too quickly, but it is still correct. The notion that there is an exception with the verb ‘ to be’ is incorrect. Have a good day.


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