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AWADmail Issue 313June 29, 2008
A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages
From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
After 14 years of being a text-only newsletter, last week A.Word.A.Day earned some color: we began including an additional HTML format to the mailing.
We received more than 900 messages from our readers in response to the new look. Of these an overwhelming majority loved the new format. Some discovered hidden treasures (audio clip, quotation, etc.) that had been there all along, but were buried in text.
A few readers were not as enthusiastic about the change. Some were nostalgic for the good old plain text in monochrome, others received AWAD on their mobile phones and preferred all text. Still others were worried about the possibility of virus in attachments. You cannot get viruses from us. We use a secure, robust Linux server (that is well taken care of by our system wizard Todd J. Derr).
Please note we do not include any attachments such as images, etc. in our email. All we send is text (either html text or plain text). You can choose to display images if you like (most good email clients, such as Gmail, offer such an option) and only then are they loaded.
There is another possibility though. You can subscribe to the RSS/XML feed. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Keep us posted.
From: Mike McGuire (mike.angela telus.net)
As an amateur web designer, I know how much work goes into site design. Congratulations on your new email format -- obviously a lot of thought has gone into it -- it appears that you have been able to get into the heads of your readers. A previously enjoyable read has become even better!
From: Dale Carr (d.c.carr home.nl)
I can't see a single advantage in the addition of html to the mailings. I seriously hope that you'll reconsider this choice and that you'll revert to plain text, which is more than adequate for a mailing list that has only to do with letters-words-text. There's already too much needless inflation -- ballast -- in the world, particularly on the www.
From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
The apostrophe hit the nerve. It inspired some to poetry, others to vent their discomfort with this often-misplaced mark, and some declared it's time to retire the sign. Here's a selection of your responses:
Many years ago, my sister was regularly finding a small, black cat on her
porch. The cat was friendly and affectionate so she assumed it was someone's
pet. Inquiries around the neighbourhood, however, did not turn up an owner,
just others who were also feeding the cat whenever it appeared. One rainy
evening, my sister brought the cat in and decided she was going to keep it.
Holding the cat aloft and looking it in the eye she mused aloud, "What am
I going to call you?"
The best yet is asparagu's in a store in Melbourne Australia called Rods
Fruit & Veg. I guess he had an apostrophe left over from the business name
and found a home for it among the asparagus. I sort of understood his
logic -- Rod had one bunch of asparagus for $1.80 and three bunches of
asparagu's for $4.
I had to laugh at today's entry on the misuse of the apostrophe. Biking to
work recently I had a moment of scorn followed closely by self-doubt after
seeing a bumper sticker that said "No Worry's".
My first reaction was one of disdain over the fact that a bumper sticker
could get through the concept, production, marketing, sale, and purchase
phases of commerce without anyone's noticing and correcting this third-grade
error. But then again, perhaps it was a subtle and clever jab at people
like me who would get bent out of shape about this inappropriate use of
I'm a resident of Wilmington Delaware, home of the Minor League Baseball
Blue Rocks. I hold my bladder as long as possible to avoid going into a
room marked "MENS". I've threatened to bring in my own apostrophes but the
signs don't look as if they'd accept editing.
I often see apostrophes inserted in ad copy in newspapers and flyers, and
that's when my patience runs out. I made up a fake organization called the
"American Association Against Apostrophe Abuse" (AAAA) and I send a
"citation" letter to the abuser. Here is an example:
After reflexively correcting people who should know better that there is no
apostrophe in the title of James Joyce's last novel, Finnegans Wake, I came
up with this:
This week's concern for the lost or misplaced apostrophe brought to mind a scene in the Newberry Medal book, The Higher Power of Lucky. The knot-obsessed Lincoln borrows Lucky's marker to add a colon to the sign,
SLOW"Wow," she said. "That is presidential."
Such a good book. I wept just looking for this page.
-Sheridan Phillips (sheridan.phillips mac.com)
Many years ago while working at Whole Foods Market, I saw where a clerk had
written a sign reading: "Bagel's 50 cents". I said to him, "You have 'Bagels'
as a plural, not as a possessive. There shouldn't be an apostrophe!" To which
he haughtily replied, "I went to a Catholic School. We didn't have bagels
This reminds me of this delightful website quotation-marks.blogspot.com
dealing with another common (and humorous) punctuation problem.
I'm conservative (grammatically)
Here in Australia there are there are no apostrophes in official place names.
According to the website of The Committee for Geographical Names in Australia, this is to make it easier
for emergency services to find place names in searchable databases. Where
historically apostrophes have been used, they should be deleted, we are told.
So we have, for example, Howes Valley, Kings Cross and Ladys Pass. Is this
the case in other countries?
Jeff Deck, founder of the Typo Elimination Advancement League, completed
a coast-to-coast circuit of the US five weeks ago, correcting hundreds of
misplaced apostrophes on public notices. You may like to read a story I
wrote about his commendable crusade, published by the South Korean citizen
reporters' journal OhmyNewsInternational.
My dad was an old-school grammarian who often lamented the misuse of
punctuation among other abuses of the language. He would have loved the
term "greengrocer's apostrophe" as shown by one of his favorite stories:
Back in the days when grocery stores advertised their sales with large
writing right on the store windows, he noticed with dismay a grocer's big sale
of "DUCK'S! CHICKEN'S! TURKEY'S!" Another passerby, quite inebriated, had
also taken note -- and offense! -- and, swaying and staring fixedly at the
abomination, the man crossed the street, took out his handkerchief and
carefully wiped off all the apostrophes. "I could have kissed him!" was the
way my dad always ended the tale.
I feel for the apostrophe. It has often been a problem for me. Computer
systems of the '70s would not recognize it; those of today do. So I'm known
as: Ray Oleary, Ray O. Leary, or Ray O'Leary.
In some cases I get three times the normal junk mail.
As you can see, my name includes an apostrophe and it frequently creates
problems for me. Computer programmers must either not like it or, like the
greengrocer, not know how to use it. Most on-line forms will not accept it,
spitting my name back and indicating there is an unknown symbol that must be
corrected. Frequently instructions will ask you to leave it out. Leave it
out? As my older brother says, computers are the new Ellis Island.
I live in St. Johns County, Florida, which is on the banks of the St. Johns
River. People are constantly adding an apostrophe in our names, thinking they
are doing a good deed in using the possessive form. But according to Flagler
College History Professor Dr. Thomas Graham, the Department of the Interior's
Board of Geographic Names stated in 1932 that in general, the genitive case
would not be used.
I'm not sure how long the term "greengrocer's apostrophe" has been in
use, but I find it quite offensive, as its purpose is to make fun of
less-educated people who don't know how to use apostrophes correctly.
I say this as the proud granddaughter of an illiterate immigrant greengrocer
who struggled with English and worked harder than I ever will to put five
children through college. Eventually, his youngest daughter (my mother)
taught him to write his own name. Without his determination, drive, and
courage, I would not have had the privilege of going to college and becoming
one of those people who use apostrophes correctly. I'm sure many of your
readers have a similar person to thank for helping them get where they are
Among several apostrophe sites and blogs out there, this one apostropheabuse.com features photos
of the mangled signage and other public notices out there with misplaced
The signs around here are not only missing an apostrophe, they read
"Please drive careful" leaving me to wonder who "careful" is and why I
should drive him or her anywhere!
You mentioned "greengrocer's apostrophe". How about another all-too-common
symbol crime, which could be called "merchant's decimal". When I see a sign
saying, ".33¢ each," I'm tempted to plunk down a penny and say,
"I'll take three. Keep the change."
As a Grammar Grouch who is usually extremely compulsive about such issues,
I have actually decided that we'd all be better off without the apostrophe.
Too many people are ignorant of its proper use, and I'm sure we'd all
understand this paragraph without it.
I have been so annoyed about this that I have written a poem:
Apostrophe abuse: surely the most irksome of all grammatical errors. I first
became aware of it in South Africa, where I saw a second-hand car yard
advertising "Cars's for sale". That was when I started photographing instances
of abuse, just for fun. I had several hundred - until a computer crash.
The most egregious of all -- and I watched this happen -- was made by an
erstwhile manager, who was writing the name of a client on a planning board.
The client was written up as Thoma's. No amount of persuasion was going to
change the manager's mind. I left the job soon after.
The same phenomenon exists in German, too. It occurs in native German as
well as English since many words and expressions in advertisements, banners,
etc. are (wrongly) taken over from English. There's a whole bunch of websites
collecting photos of Deppenapostrophen (fool's apostrophes). Here's a meta-link deppenapostroph.de to
Think of the ink we could save by using apostrophes as they were intended
(to indicate omitted letters)! So how about extending this to silent letters?
For example ni't for night, and tho't for thought? Pretty soon people would
stop placing the apostrophes and we could have phonetic spelling -- or nits
Imagine my horror when I realized I had married a man who, although very well
read, absolutely could not grasp the proper use of an apostrophe. Not only
that, but he assumed that a comma was interchangeable with an apostrophe. To
make things worse, he often made the sale signs that his retail store used!
It wasn't uncommon to see "carpet,s for sale". I always knew when he'd been
on the job!
The ramp to my exit of the turnpike splits into two lanes just before
crossing under an overpass. The warning sign preceding the split instructed
you to "use both lanes" which if you did, as opposed to using either lane,
would cause you to crash into the wall holding up the overpass. Unfortunately
(or fortunately), the sign is no longer there, but I still recall it fondly
each time I exit the turnpike. Almost makes the toll worth it!
Why does that annoy me so: the plural 's and the possessive s? People think
I'm pretty petty for caring about such things. And it's a linguistic rule
that if something is improperly left out it will, as you point out, appear
somewhere it doesn't belong.
Oh, speaking of the "greengrocer's apostrophe" I am not so
sure that is so much incorrect as misinterpreted. If you
replace the sign "Apple's $2/lb" with the sentence "The
apple's price is two dollars per pound" it makes sense.
And that is what the sign is really saying, after all.
Though in that case "Apples' $2/lb" would probably be
better. Either way is still looks clumsy to me.
The misuse of the apostrophe has been a pet peeve for many years. In fact,
while I was teaching in high school, I wrote my own epitaph:
I hope you will recognize that there is an effort to get away from using the
possessive form of medical eponyms (e.g. Down syndrome, Tourette syndrome).
While the possessive form remains acceptable, the AAMT (American Association
for Medical Transcription) and the AMA (American Medical Association) as well
as major medical dictionaries recommend omission of the apostrophe with
From: Weston Ryan (westonryan msn.com)
Cribbage is another card game that attributes nicknames to specific hands. It was my father's favourite game and he had a name for practically every hand that he held (many of which are unprintable). A hand which holds two pairs and no other scoring cards is called Morgan's Orchard. I have no idea who Morgan was, but suspect that, based on the amount of his produce, he is no longer an orchardist.
From: Clifford (c.dack btinternet.com)
In Britain, a far better-known use of this term is in the world of public vehicle driving. On railways, trams, and underground trains the driver has a lightly sprung handle which he must keep depressed. If it is released, (as when the driver dies, or faints) the vehicle is brought safely to a halt.
From: Glenn Glazer (glenn.glazer gmail.com)
Science fiction novels and Bond films occasionally have a related term, the deadman's switch. The idea is that the switch is attached to a bomb and the bomb will not detonate as long as pressure is applied to the switch. Kill the one holding the switch and the bomb goes off, hence the name.
From: Richard Baxter (rbaxter fortress.com)
Hickok was shot in the back during a poker game and part of the lesson from this in my family was to never play cards with your back to the room.
From: Rich (molyneur yahoo.com)
The aces and eights were all black... clubs and spades. Trivia, true, but important to poker buffs.
From: Henry Packer (packerhenry yahoo.com)
Very odd question about the Deadman's Hand. What was the 5th card? I did a little research on the web. A lot of images of the Deadman's hand show the fifth card turned over so we don't see it. I guess no one knows.
From: John Pavia (pavia ithaca.edu)
Any sailor will also know "Yeoman" as meaning "clerk". Yes, "Yeoman service" does imply worthwhile fulfillment of one's task but aboard a naval vessel a Yeoman is what the Army used to call a clerk-typist.
From: David Faulkner (dfaulkne arb.ca.gov)
More specifically, "bum's rush" means to grab someone by the back of his belt and the back of his collar and propel him through the doorway. A maneuver almost invariably performed by a large, muscular chap whose job description includes ejecting disruptive or otherwise unwelcome "guests".
From: JM Torok (badmedicine criqet.com)
While staying in the Waldorf Astoria one weekend in the mid 1980s, I was sitting in their bar enjoying an afternoon cocktail when this "gentleman", obviously from the street, came in and sat next to me. He started talking to me and I looked at the bartender. Within seconds he was promptly removed. NO words were exchanged. He was escorted out of the hotel.
That day I learned the term bum's rush and never forgot. :)
From: Robin (niasam2000 aol.com)
There's another similar term: bum rush. It means an enthusiastic entrance or stampede, in contrast to "bum's rush" which is a forcible ejection. For example, "During today's pep rally the entire football team bum rushed the field while the band was playing."
From: Nisi Hamilton (nisi aol.com)
Don't use this term on Nantucket if you want to be an insider. Nantucketers interested in their town's history and the strong stoic families that lived on this far away island have always disparaged the term "widow's walk", claiming that the correct term is "walk".
A language is never in a state of fixation, but is always changing; we are not looking at a lantern-slide but at a moving picture. -Arthur Lloyd James, phonetician (1884-1943)