What’s up with that misplaced ‘s’?

By Lisa Britton September 24, 2010 11:03 am

I found a perfect T-shirt the other day sporting this question: “Is there a hyphen in anal-retentive?”

A close runner-up is: “A semi-colon is not a medical procedure.”

These shirts — amusing to those of us who work with words — are on sale to celebrate National Punctuation Day, which is today.

Who celebrates punctuation?

On any given day, our newsroom is likely to have a conversation about apostrophes, semi-colons or quotation marks.

English teachers also are mighty fond of punctuation.

Not everyone is so concerned.

My affinity for that anal-retentive shirt comes from my obsession with reading signs — countless times I’ve fought the urge to stop at a business to correct its misspelled signs. (I’m pretty sure that would embarrass my family.)

But apostrophes — those little marks jump out at me when misplaced, which might be the most common mistake.

The rule is pretty easy: shorten “it is” to become “it’s” (It’s sunny today.) In all other cases, use “its” with no apostrophe. (The dog scratched its ear.)

Unfortunately, people feel the need to throw apostrophes in anywhere they add an “s.”

I’m not saying we’re perfect when it comes to punctuation — most days we consult The Associated Press stylebook, which has two entire pages dedicated to the tiny apostrophe. The comma entry is similar in length.

I’m not much into texting but when I send one of those short messages, it’s full of proper words, capitalization where needed and punctuation. I just can’t make myself send a text, or an e-mail, that isn’t proper English.

(A note to my texting friends: I’m not critiquing your quicker technique — this just explains why my responses are always a bit slow in coming.)

Though I haven’t conducted a scientific study (my strength is English, not math), I’m pretty certain that some people just have an ingrained sense of spelling and grammar, while others would rather tackle a complicated physics problem and couldn’t care less about commas or colons.

The great thing is that this world needs both skills.

Although I struggled through math in school, I knew I needed to know the basics.

I’m not sure the same approach applies to writing and reading. I have friends from high school who are amazed that I’d want to “write a report every day” in my  job at the newspaper.

I don’t see it that way — writing a story about an inspiring person in the community doesn’t compare to the 10-page research papers I wrote in high school and college.

Well, I guess there’s one comparison: both types of writing do benefit from proper punctuation.

To celebrate National Punctuation Day, founder Jeff Rubin suggests looking at signs around town (mentioning mistakes to business owners is optional), buying a copy of “The Elements of Style” or writing an error-free letter to a friend.

Or maybe just order a T-shirt.

Lisa Britton is a reporter for the Baker City Herald.