In the fall of 2001, I taught back-to-back Freshman Comp classes, keeping me pretty much out of contact with the outside world from 8:00 to 11:00 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. As a graduate student, my job was to teach 44 reluctant eighteen-year-olds how to express a few coherent thoughts and perhaps to occasionally make a persuasive argument.
One Tuesday at 9:25, as one class shuffled out and the next shuffled in, one young man remarked to his classmates, “Did you hear that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center?” Like so many others that morning, we all pictured a little plane piloted by a flight student with a tragically bad sense of direction. Students handed forward the papers that were do, and we proceeded with the day’s lesson on paragraphing.
An hour and forty-five minutes later, I grumbled to myself as I rifled through the department teaching supply cabinet. “Are you OK?” a fellow grad student asked as she walked past with a professor.
“I can’t find any chalk around here,” I complained, and they both shot me disgusted looks before moving on. Then the grad student turned back, suddenly realizing something.
“Have you heard what happened?” she asked.
And that was how I heard. I ran up three flights of stairs to my office and brought up my email, which was already flooded with messages from friends in New York, all of which said the same basic thing: “I am alive.”
As the morning lapsed into afternoon, I could only spend so long staring at CNN.com or refreshing my email. Eventually, I realized I had to occupy my mind with something. And so I began to grade papers.
All that evening and the following day, I graded one set of papers. I did it with passion and a thoroughness no student papers had heretofore seen. The sky was falling, but I would make all well with the world by making damned sure these kids knew how to write a topic sentence.
In that spirit, and because I cannot do a damned thing about the fact that the stock market has gotten off its Prozac, retirees may suddenly find they need to return to work, people are losing their homes, and my children are likely to find themselves in a world war over water, I offer the following lesson in apostrophe usage.
With regular nouns, if you wish to indicate more than one, all you need to do is add an S. For example: “Many stores are going out of business.” Stores is plural, not possessive, and does not require an apostrophe.
If, however, you wish to indicate possession, you will need one of those nifty little doohickies that hang between an S and the rest of the word. For example: “The woman’s portfolio has lost half of its value.” As the unfortunate woman owns the portfolio, we indicate ownership with apostrophe + S. (The lone exception is “its,” which gets an apostrophe only to indicate the contraction of “it is.”) This formula works with both singular nouns and irregular plurals, such as: “The people’s dismay at discovering that there is such a thing as global warming…”
Should you wish to indicate both plural and possessive with a regular noun, you will need to move that snazzy little apostrophe to after the S. For example: “In my sons’ time, we will likely face a global food and water crisis.” I have two sons, yet I also wish to indicate their time, so the apostrophe goes after the S, showing that the S is doing double-duty.
Should you have any questions about this relatively simple punctuation mark, please email me instead of making up your own grammar. Seriously. I am tired of signs indicating that on Tuesdays the bar has “Two margarita’s for the price of one.” The sky is falling here, people, and we need to prop it up one apostrophe at a time.
And while we’re at it, “a lot” is two words.