Apostrophes, Commas, and Steller’s Jays

Spiritual Smart Aleck


It is March 24, 2018 as I write, and all over our country and on Vashon Island people have come out for the March for Our Lives, a protest asking that we have sensible gun laws and regulations in our country, and that automatic weapons and assault rifles not be sold, and that politicians and people in general snap out of it and realize that the second amendment does not protect anyone’s right to own those guns.

This is important stuff, and there is a lot to be said about it, and a lot of people are saying it. I’m going to go for something much lighter in this essay, because, hey, we all need to inhale sometimes.

“Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” a book by Lynne Truss, surfaced on my bookshelf recently. Ms. Truss describes herself as a “stickler,” and her book is about punctuation, and how important punctuation is to the flow of the written word. When it’s correct, you don’t notice it.

She lives in the United Kingdom, and her usage in the book adheres to UK rules. That’s why she uses quotation marks “thusly”.

In the US we use quotation marks like “this way.” Take as much time as you need to see the difference.

There are epic battles between writers and editors over this issue. It’s simple: in the “States,” they go “here,” in the “UK”, they go “here”.

Shall we move on?

The humble apostrophe works hard, and Ms. Truss takes a lot of trouble to explain its correct usage. It’s not the apostrophe’s fault that it is left out where it ought to be and put in where it ought not. Perhaps you’ve heard of the guy who goes around London at night painting over apostrophes that don’t belong in signs?

Example: Big sale on orange’s!

Argh. You see these desecrations all the time. Sometimes they are done intentionally to bring annoyed people into stores, where they are then persuaded to buy the goods.

Commas: there are rules for commas, but don’t try to enforce them. I learned while editing that every writer has their own distinct Comma Code, and will fight to the death defending it. I decided that unless a comma or lack of comma changed or confused the meaning of a sentence, I would let it stand. Choose your battles.

When I was a child, so long ago that when I looked it up online it wasn’t there, there was a comma mishap with far reaching effects. Consider this story hearsay, because no doubt I’m remembering it wrong.

Sometime in the fifties or sixties, there were taxes imposed on imported fruits.

Unfortunately, in the legislation’s list of fruits, someone left out the comma between banana and apple, and the legislation passed without a tax on bananas or apples, but with a tax on the banana apple. Respect your commas, and your proofreaders.

I learned a lot working as an editor, both of the Loop and of manuscripts. Regular Loop writers were good writers. What I learned is that good writers are much easier to edit than not so good writers, who tend to think their work is holy writ. Psst: it’s not.

Also, all writers are insecure and need to be encouraged. We are, and we do, okay?

One thing I learned about while editing the Loop was the Steller’s Jay. Orca Annie wrote of a Steller jay in one of her columns, and ignoramus that I was, I changed it to stellar. Well, she got in touch and tore me a new one right smartly. That’s when I learned that the Steller’s Jay is named for Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), a German physician, botanist, and zoologist who explored Alaska under the auspices of Russia and was the first European to observe and record several species, some of whom were named for him, including the Steller’s Jay. I don’t know what the indigenous people called them. Anyone?
I also learned that the Steller’s Jay is a member of the family Corvidae. Yup, they are related to crows, which explains a lot – their voices, and their intelligence, for starters.

They are not merely pretty faces.

The internet, texting, and messaging have made nonsense of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and yet some sticklers are soldiering on. Granted, the spirit of communication is more important than the letter of the law, but grammar and punctuation are what allow us to read something without being jolted by some clanger.

I confess that since I stopped being an editor I’ve become something of a grammar and punctuation barbarian. I use sentence fragments. I write sentences that end with prepositions. I start sentences with “and” and “but.” I am a wild woman. Up the revolution!
Okay. Break’s over. Back to saving the world.