First Night Design | A Word in Your Shell-Like about Punctuation


‘Shell-like’ refers to a person’s ear. It has been in use since the late 19th century when the shape of an ear was deemed to be like a sea shell.

When we are tired, under pressure or emotional, it is all too easy to make glaring mistakes in our writing. I’m as guilty as anyone and have appalled myself on occasion with errors that must have prompted my mother, an ardent member of the ‘grammar police’, to spin in her grave!

Having said that, there is little excuse on a computer when there are multifarious tools for proof-reading, whether it’s spelling or grammar. True, these tools are not infallible — I say this as WP  has just accepted ‘iff’ on another post I’m writing — but it is the least we owe our readers. Some bloggers, I’ve noticed, have added spelling and grammar disclaimers; this beggars belief.

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While the mistakes listed in the above image are commonplace and infuriating, incorrect plurals seem to have taken over the globe! I’ve just seen a Twitter profile that reads ‘Manages only the best producer’s, artist’s, designer’s and model’s of today’s talent.’ Are they kidding me?

Of all the plural gaffes, there is one in particular that has become all-pervasive and makes me grit my teeth, I confess, with fury. I see it myriad times a day, every day. I’ve even seen it in a captioned prologue to a film. It’s an error that has me wondering if somebody changed the rules and forgot to tell me!

I’m talking about how to use an apostrophe when it comes to years and decades. Confused? Let me show you some examples, all of which I’ve taken from the web. The correct way to express each phrase is on the right.

1960’s Decade Overview • 1960s Decade Overview

Visiting dress, late 1860’s • Visiting dress, late 1860s

Explorers from the 1600’s • Explorers from the 1600s

She was a college student in the early 1990’s • She was a college student in the early 1990s

Where does the 1990’s rank as a decade? • Where do the 1990s rank as a decade? (also note the ‘does’ error in this question taken from the CNN website)

This applies equally when decades are shortened i.e. the ’20s (note the apostrophe before the number to show the elision). The only time you would apply an apostrophe before the ‘s’ is if you were writing about that particular turn-of-the-decade year i.e. 1960’s music charts, meaning the charts of 1960, not the whole decade. If you wanted to refer to the charts of the decade in this context, it would be ‘the 1960s’ music charts’ where the apostrophe after the ‘s’ is possessive in nature.

Incidentally, ages follow the same pattern: you should write ‘I’m in my 30s’ rather than ‘I’m in my 30’s’.

I do know that many are dismissive of grammatical rules and say it really doesn’t matter. But this, as Pippa of The Last Post said, is like declaring that an artist doesn’t need to be able to draw to be a painter, or that a mathematician doesn’t need to know how to add up to create ground-breaking formulae. The more the structure of language is debased, the more incomprehensible it becomes and the less we understand each other, a dangerous path to take, as history shows us all too often.

Here is Lynne Truss on the subject in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, an invaluable and highly entertaining guide to punctuation that has no right not being on every wordsmith’s shelf.

‘The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive élite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.’

‘On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.’

‘We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.’

‘[…] I apologise if you all know this, but the point is many, many people do not. Why else would they open a large play area for children, hang up a sign saying “Giant Kid’s Playground”, and then wonder why everyone stays away from it? (Answer: everyone is scared of the Giant Kid.)’

All quotes taken from GoodReads.

I could quote from this book forever and a day. Short of that, I urge you to get a copy.

It is also worth looking out for punctuation posts from some of the lovely blogs I follow including but not limited to Nicholas C Rossis and Have We Had Help.

Related

Take care and keep laughing!

Sarah

58 thoughts on “First Night Design | A Word in Your Shell-Like about Punctuation

      1. I often am, but as it’s mostly subjects I feel unqualified to comment on (I have the artistic abilities of a rock) I tend to sneak in and sneak out again.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for that. I hadn’t thought about the decade issue so I might have made that error myself. I will look out for it in future.
    I find that I read differently now that I’ve been exposed to so much Internet grammar and spelling. I almost expect the mistakes, and when the problem words (like “your”) appear it trips me up. Have you had that experience? It slows me down a lot. I have a couple of friends who text without punctuation and it drives me crazy. Okay, I’d better go and count to 100. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t say I’ve noticed the decade problem in your posts, Sarah, you’ll be pleased to know. But oh, the tripping up is a nightmare. It certainly does slow you down. Sometimes the errors are so profuse, I simply stop reading: life is far too short!

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  2. I try and be careful in English although I was peculiar in Spanish already (and have to try hard not to correct signs and all kinds of things). I try and check things I’m not sure about but sometimes things seem unclear according to which authority you check. But basic mistakes do trip me up too…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your written English is phenomenal, Olga, especially considering how short a time you’ve been in the UK. It is, indeed, very difficult to check when there are so many different sources, not all of which are correct. I really do recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves as Truss explains why sentences are punctuated in certain ways and not others. And she’s very funny with it, I have to say.

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  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I am not saying I am grammatically infallible, only that I absolutely care about it. How could good communication “not matter”? That one always blows me away!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I must be at saturation level since lately I find myself walking away from good content because of all the “bumps” in the writing. How good is a story or article when I have to stop every few seconds, allowing my brain to process the writer’s intent because I have to “dumb down” my understanding? As you said, there are many tools available on the internet for writing; but the very place you find this information encourages such indiscriminate writing. I rarely find books that hold my attention these days. Shirley MacLaine writes impeccably. Stephen King is right behind.,

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As far as I’m concerned, it becomes bad content. I do the same as you because life is far too short to struggle over something that’s written in your native tongue. It might amuse you to know that my first draft of this post was a lot less diplomatic!

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          1. I can certainly understand why. My husband and I have dueling tirades every morning as we read our daily stories and try to weed through the all too often illiterate dribble that passes for news. He has been seeking a used vehicle and the ads are beyond atrocious. Of course, I try urging him to consider that often these things are written by individuals who may not use English as a primary language. Sadly, this has become true of many people born and educated in the United States.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to confess to the decades issue, I did know, but for some reason I forgot, and kept adding the annoying apostrophe. Luckily, someone told me about it…
    My own irritation is to/too. It is such an easy one, but is constantly written in error because it is one of those not picked up by spell-checks. I turn all those off when I can, because they try to force me to use American (therefore wrong) spellings. I use the old method. I read it through, and correct it myself. Not infallible, but it stops me getting lazy.
    I enjoyed this one Sarah, and I do have the Truss book, so I still cannot explain the decades mistake.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It happens to us all, Pete. I tend to think, also, that we take into our subconscious so many errors read on the net that they come out automatically when we’re writing. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

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  5. Dear F.D.N. (may I call you Ms Design?!),
    Oh, this post! Wonderful! It so perfectly expresses my disgust at the misuse of plurals in “professional” work, as well as the abysmally lazy – even moronic – approach to punctuation and basic grammar that has run rampant in webworld and elsewhere, that I’m rather in love with it! Anyone can make a mistake (I am a master builder of them) but the tendency to almost flaunt ignorance and laziness is anger-making. Um, and no, I’m not demented – well, at least not outside the hours of 9 to 5! Brava!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can call me Ms Design or a cab or anything you like. You can even call me Sarah! I’m so overwhelmed by your endorsement, I hardly know what to say, Mr Kaplan, except a simple thank you. Blessings. You might rather like my it-started-off-as-only-theatre-but-now-it-covers-all forms blog, Rogues & Vagabonds: http://roguesandvagabonds.wordpress.com. No doubt we’ll be speaking again soon courtesy of Ms Lester.

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  6. You are generous, Sarah (I considered calling you a cab but thought that would be rather rude; after all you might call me a rickshaw! I. Apologize. Unreservedly. For. That. Awful. Joke!), you deserve the plaudits. Sensitivity, righteous ire, clear-eyed observation, and keen-edged wit: I would be a fool not to adore this post!
    Oh, I have already tiptoed round Rogues and Vagabonds to take a look-see, and you are right from the titles alone I know it will take my fancy. I spied a post on Nigel Kneale, and having watched some of what’s left of The Quatermass Experiment last week, that shall be my first port of call. (Coincidentally, who should take the lead in the disappointing fourth Quatermass but a fellow you mentioned earlier at Beguiling … John Mills. Thankfully not playing Bernard with a cockney accent…) Have a lovely night.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sarah, as a fictional “great philosopher” once said, “It’s nice to be nice to the…nice.” And if that doesn’t say it all then my name isn’t Jasper Jeffries! (It isn’t.)
    Seriously, I am delighted to have discovered your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Couldn’t agree more. For me it’s the “it’s – its” and the “should of”, which drive me crazy the most. On a poster for a Disney movie I once saw “Entertainment at it’s best”, a million people must have worked on that poster, and none of them spotted the error before going to print. Disney! Staggering!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fantastic! I studied French and German translating & interpreting at uni years ago and if you stuffed up English grammar, 50% of your marks went immediately – a great incentive to know your grammar. I love the English language, it’s so rich and good grammar accentuates the richness. Grammar Nazis of the world unite!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I purposely used ‘grammar police’ because I didn’t want the usual reaction that greets the other expression! Thanks for commenting and also for following – much appreciated. That 50% ruling sounds excellent!

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  10. haha, my mother too was a fully paid up member of the grammar (and spelling) police.
    i cringe and shout more at radio 4 now than i ever used to do. interestingly, when i am in the sates i chill because i don’t expect anyone in the media to know the rules of grammar. wasn’t it once said that it is language that divides us?
    as someone who has been caught out by the damned auto correct i do forgive a lot when it comes to reading blogs, so maybe i am mellowing.
    enjoyed the post 🙂

    Like

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