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April 30th, 2008

Apostrophe quiz

by Barbara Wallraff

Sue Plasberg, of Rexford, N.Y., writes: “I am appalled at the number of people who are writing the contraction ‘it’s’ instead of the possessive ‘its.’ Is there anything we can do to educate people?”

Dear Sue: I’m appalled too. I don’t think any other writing mistake more clearly labels a person ignorant -- or careless at best. The mistake isn’t a new one. The other day I noticed an out-of-place apostrophe on a nicely hand-
lettered commercial sign that must be 50 years old. But “its”/“it’s” mistakes are definitely becoming more common, and so is other foolishness with apostrophes. We might be tempted to blame the casual and ultra-efficient language of e-mail and text messages, in which some people dispense with punctuation altogether. But in the non-virtual world, I see extra apostrophes as often as I see places where needed ones have been left out -- so something else must be going on.

Sue, you asked if there’s “anything we can do.” Why don’t we have a quiz, so everyone can test his or her contraction and apostrophe skills? In fact, let’s make it a contest: I’ll send a signed copy of my book “Word Court” to one reader, chosen at random, who sends me -- on my Web site or by mail -- the correct answers within a week of the publication date of this column. To enter the contest, just tell me the first letter of each sentence below that has neither more nor fewer apostrophes than it needs.

--Please, let’s try to make sure it’s right -- whatever it is -- before we share it with everyone else.

--Whose responsible, do you suppose, for the trouble so many people have with writing?

--Easy mistakes to make are usually easy ones to correct.

--Realistically, everyone let’s a few mistakes slip by -- but the fewer the better!

--Random placement of apostrophes is so silly -- if people don’t know where they belong, why do they bother putting them in?

--On the other hand, its also silly to leave out all the apostrophe’s because your not sure where they go.

--Foolish ideas aren’t necessarily expressed in misspelled and badly punctuated English, but wherever you see lots of careless mistakes, you’re being given a hint that the writer may not have been paying attention.

--Errors also drag readers’ minds away from whatever the writer is trying to say.

--Now its possible that your starting to get confused.

--Certainly, seeing lots of mistakes all together can get a person muddled about what’s right and what’s wrong.

--The simple way to tell whether a particular “its” is a contraction, needing an apostrophe, is to ask yourself whether you could write “it is” instead.

--Good English -- like good anything else -- is made from good-quality material’s.

Here’s hoping you get all the answers right. (Again, to enter my contest, just send me the first letter of each correct sentence.) I look forward to hearing from you!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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