Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Bouquet of Apostrophes for National Punctuation Day

If you’re reading this on September 24, be forewarned that (thanks to the tireless efforts of founder Jeff Rubin) it’s National Punctuation Day. You just barely have time to dash out and buy your sweetheart a nosegay of commas or one perfect semicolon.

I jest, of course, though correct punctuation is no laughing matter. This holds true even in the movie industry, where linguistic correctness is low on the scale of priorities. My former boss, Roger Corman, scored big in the Sixties with a movie about the Hells Angels, who as social outlaws have never bothered using an apostrophe to indicate the possessive. Maybe that’s why my writing students -- iconoclasts all – drive me crazy with their cavalier approach to punctuation.

Here are some actual examples culled from the scripts I read last spring for the advanced rewrite course I offered through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I’ve changed a few proper names to help conceal the authors’ identities. And yes, do notice how the Writers’ Program has totally won my heart by correctly putting its apostrophe after the plural noun. Anyway, here goes:

These recipe’s were taught to me by my mother.

Machine’s flash and churn around her.

Anne nods, let’s go of the dish, turns back to the sink.

Now, lets drink a toast.

I think its best never to argue with a man of the cloth.

The man who ruined both Smith brother’s lives.

I’ll bet your freezing out here in this cold.

Your loud.

He won’t even notice your gone.

You’re little brother came to me.

You’re sure their over twenty one?  (Well, at least the “you’re” contraction is correct!)

As a former English major, I’ve got to say, “Aaargh!”  I can only suggest that these grammatically-challenged aspiring screenwriters check out the work of Constance Hale. Connie, a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, is the go-to person at the New York Times for clever, witty columns about language. She’s written several popular books on the subject, including Wired Style: Principles of English Usage for the Digital Age and Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Her latest, which I read cover to cover, is Vex, Hex, Smash, and Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. From her titles, it should be instantly obvious that Connie is not a stuffy schoolmarm type. She herself makes clear that she’s not going to lecture us into submission: “The goal is not hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose. It’s not savoir grammaire but savoir faire.” On the other hand, she remains a stickler for strong, forceful, and accurate language: “Let’s say it again: It’s only by caring about precision, nuance, and tone that we write with power.”

Connie’s books are hardly addressed specifically to screenwriters. But some of her suggestions, particularly those relating to the imperative voice, would come in mighty handy for someone trying to write concise, punchy stage directions. This is a woman who can make language sing. Here, in passing, is a sentence I love from her section describing predicates: “But what about those other characters grabbing on to the verbs to become part of the action, or just lurking in doorways, crouching in the shadows, slipping into a sentence at the last minute?”
I should add that Connie Hale grew up in the Hawaiian Islands (and is, by the way, an expert on traditional hula). When writing the name of her native state, she always adds an apostrophe: Hawai’i. So she’s earned a place in my punctuation tribute. A verbal hibiscus lei to you, Ms. Hale!   
Apostrophe error on storefront window, Healdsburg, California

Misplaced apostrophes at Jack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen, California


  1. Proofreading and editing have sadly gone the way of the dodo in too many cases. I find mistakes like these all over the place. I really don't want Mike Judge's Idiocracy to come true - but I think we're heading that way. In any case, Happy National Punctuation Day Ms. G! Your post shows you're the sort of person who is there in the moment with punctuation, as they're likely to discover when you hand back their script. See what I did there?

  2. There's a lot of sense in what you say, Mr. C!