Sunday, 31 July 2011

Apostrophes - it's and its

Statistics Canada released it's annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday (Globe and Mail, 22/07/11).

I'm sure that the writer knows the difference between "it's", the contraction of "it is", and "its", the possessive. Probably, the above error is a slip that should have been picked up by a proofreader. In the past it would have been, but in the newspaper industry today, proofreaders have likely been replaced by Spellcheck, which has its obvious failings.

Occasionally, one sees its', which is not correct in any circumstances.

The correct version of the Globe extract would read:

Statistics Canada released its annual survey of police-reported crime on Tuesday.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I don't search the Globe and Mail for errors like a fundamentalist looking in the scriptures for a line to justify his prejudices. I simply notice the mistakes in the sections I read. And I'm sure I miss many.

Apostrophes - the cottage sign error

As I drive through cottage country, I notice signs announcing the proud owners of the rustic dwellings at the ends of the driveways: The Smith's, The Sawchuk's, The Campbell's. The apostrophe indicates possession, and the object possessed, the cottage, is understood. What the sign means is: here is the Smith's cabin! But is there only one Smith, and does he style himself, The Smith?

Presumably, these cottages belong to the families - the Smiths, the Sawchuks, and the Campbells; and so the apostrophe should be placed after the "s" to indicate plural possession, as in The Smiths', The Sawchuks', and The Campbells'

I have noticed that on these signs only rarely is the apostrophe in the right place. See for yourself next time you're in cottage country.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Apostrophes - the greengrocer's

Islamist group's such as the Muslim Brotherhood... argue that... only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution. (Globe and Mail, 29/07/11)

This particular error used to be known as the greengrocer's apostrophe, because of the signs in the shop window saying "Apple's", "Orange's". These of course are plurals, not possessives, and don't require an apostrophe at all.

As Pope said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." Some people learned at school to put an apostrophe before the "s" and extended the rule to every "s" they wrote. 

They would also, incorrectly, put an apostrophe before the "s" in a third person singular verb, as in "Rock and roll rule's!"

The Globe reporter, or his proof reader, should have said:

Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood... argue that... only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution.

Plain language (not!) - the BC referendum question

Recently, I answered the BC referendum question. I won't tell you how I voted, but I will comment on the wording of the question. Here it is.

Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST and reinstating the PST in conjunction with the GST?

The referendum package was sent to all BC  residents eligible to vote, around 40% of whom, according to the latest adult literacy survey, have low reading skills. The problem with the question is the use of the words "extinguish", "reinstate" and "conjunction". (And why say "extinguish" rather than "eliminate"? Is the HST a fire that needs to be put out?) 

People tend to write at the educational level they have reached. In this case, the words in question would have flowed naturally from the pen of the government researcher who wrote the question, but they are not appropriate for an audience which includes many who have not finished high school.

A referendum question that more BC residents would be able to understand would read like this.

Do you want to get rid of the HST and bring back the PST and the GST?

A mellow grammatical rant

Now of my threescore years and ten
Seventy will not come again

As a septuagenarian, I'm entitled to an occasional rant. I was once a raging grammarian, but I've come to accept that language changes, and that what grates on my ear is perfectly acceptable to younger people's. In fact, when I say "dived" or "sneaked", instead of "dove or "snuck", their ears are probably offended. And some usage that used to grate on mine doesn't grate so much any more. In moments of weakness, I may even "access" my account instead of "gaining access to" it. 

When words are used wrongly by almost everybody, the new meaning eventually becomes acceptable and finds its way into the dictionary. For example, "disinterested" means not to have an interest, e.g., personal or financial, in something, as in, "The judge must be disinterested in her case", but now, it's commonly used as a synonym for "uninterested", as in, "He seems to be disinterested in school". This new meaning is now given in the dictionary.

But some errors are not acceptable, especially in the fields of education and journalism, where we might expect to find models of correct usage of the English language. The CBC and the Globe and Mail, for example, used to pride themselves on always being correct. No longer, it seems! One reporter in the Globe and Mail doesn't seem to know the difference between "lie" and "lay", and I recently heard a CBC reporter say "I had went...."

As raging grammarians, we used to issue penalties and notify organizations who made grammatical errors. We were rightly criticized as being grammatiical snobs. In this blog, I hope that with my threescore years and ten I am now more humble. I intend merely to write a style guide based on the errors I encounter. If I make an mistake, please tell me, and if you have any questions, please ask them. You can email me at

Each entry will comment on a grammatical or stylistic "error".

Who is my audience? My family, who don't have a choice, some friends who I think may be interested, and anyone else who stumbles by chance upon the blog site. Largely, of course, like most bloggers, I am writing for my own satisfaction. What else is a retired English teacher to do? And to misquote Dostoyevski,

A man must have something to do.