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Grammar Girl - A Girl Like I...
by Rose Thorne

THERE WAS ONCE A LETTER to the editor of our national newspaper -- this was years ago, but I'll never forget it -- which argued that the greengrocer's apostrophe (plum's, apple's, etc., for the plural) was widely used, and was therefore established usage. The writer went on to say that the form had been invented for a purpose, served the purpose, and therefore could not be said to be wrong. That stopped me in my tracks, as you can well imagine. In despair, feeling that I had been living a lie, I closed the paper and distractedly scanned the advertising leaflets that had fallen out of its pages. There it was: Nectarine's. Beet's. And I had no right to object! I looked closer. "Daily specials," it read. "Open Thursdays and Fridays till 10:00."

My existential dread eased. Thank God, there was still a rule of some kind. But this new rule was obviously more complicated than I had thought: apostrophes were necessary for the plural of fruits and vegetables, but not for days of the week or other common nouns. Either these greengrocers were monsters of subtlety or -- dare I think it? -- they did not respect the new rules themselves. And if they did not, why should I? Bring back the old rules! God is not dead, and everything is not permitted.

Apostrophes are one of the sillier dodges thought up by the inventors of English, whoever they were, and in some ways I can't help sympathizing with the abolitionists. If they baffle you, leaving them all out seems a more rational solution than scattering them over your prose like fairy dust and hoping your sentences will magically line up under their spell. I'd rather see Mens Shoes advertised than Mens' Shoes. The latter, of course, would have to be the shoes of mens.

As for the pseudo-plural, it constantly leaps out to annoy me from the name plates people like to affix to their houses: "The White's," "The Smith's," "The Bartlett's." This is the singular possessive form and what it must mean is that a singular, possessive creature -- the White, the Smith, or the Bartlett -- owns the house and dwells within it, like a troll. There are two rules here. First, do not use an apostrophe to form a plural. No, not ever. Well, hardly ever. You sometimes have to stick one in when you are talking about letters themselves: P's and Q's, a's and b's. Second, form the possessive by putting the apostrophe after the s of plurals; add apostrophe s after the plural form if it is irregular, i.e., people's houses, not peoples' houses.

ONE SATURDAY THIS PAST July the Globe and Mail personals opened with this anguished cry: "KATE- -STOP READING THESE DAMNED ADS. LOVE M XX." M probably has nothing to worry about. Kate could well be reading the personals for the same reason I do -- the melodrama and the laughs. The advertisers are doing their best to convey who they are in a few brief words, which they make as charming and witty as possible. Luckily for me, they make some pretty funny mistakes, too. There was the one who was looking for "a person who, like 1, is well educated and enjoys the finer things." If Kate, like me, is interested in language trends, she may well have got a gasp and a giggle out of that one. And then there was the man who bragged that he was "a selfstyled entrepreneur" (how stylish).

What I want to talk about, though, is the man who described himself in an otherwise unambiguous paragraph as blonde. This is the feminine form of the noun and adjective blond, and it should never be used of a man. In fact, to be on the safe side you can use blond for both sexes. The e form is borrowed from French, and is unnecessary in English, which has no equivalent system of classifying words by gender. The few feminine noun forms we have -- waitress, actress, huntress, empress, etc. -classify the person, not the word, and even these few are being cleared out by the feminist language-cleaning ladies, which seems a pity. It's interesting that language reformers in French are doing the opposite; inventing new feminine forms instead of jettisoning the old ones. The word ecrivain, for example. Just add an e and the writer is an ecrivaine.

Speaking of the letter e, isn't it odd the way it creeps in where it is not wanted or needed? Even well-read and sensitiveauthors seem to feel that smoky, lacy stony , mousy, and so on are not complete

without an e. It's a newish tendency, and may have originated in an Irish habit (think of Irish whiskey) that reached a wider world when it came to North America. Well, Smokey the Bear, Looney Tunes, and Mickey Mouse, fine; but that e is not equired. Older words of this type, even slang like racy and lousy, are well estalished in the correct spelling, but with the newer coinages lexicographers seem to have been intimidated. Dopey and dicey and spacey it is. Oh, well.

Dicey, by the way, comes from dice, which is the plural of die. One die, two dice -- and not the other way around, as a careful but confused CBC speakerine had it the other day. Now there's a French feminine that has no masculine.


Rose Thorne is the pseudonym of a Toronto editor and writer.


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