Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lucky Jim and Apostrophes

A few weeks ago, I read the humorous novel Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The novel satirizes various aspects of academia and related situations, but one of the most comic parts, to my mind anyway, was when the cab Jim Dixon and Christine Callaghan are in drives up to a petrol station. Here is the sentence: “Behind these [petrol pumps] was an unlit building with a painted sign, faintly visible, reading Car’s for Hire – Batesons – Repair’s.” (page 138 in the edition printed by Victor Gollancz, London)

Why is this funny? Because of the horrible apostrophe usage! Many users of English have trouble with apostrophes, but in general, it’s pretty simple: you use an apostrophe for possessives, but not for plurals (yes, I’m leaving out contractions, and the fact that the word “its” is possessive, not plural, in order to focus on the major area of confusion). So the sign in Lucky Jim should actually read Cars for Hire – Bateson’s – Repairs.

As a copy editor, punctuation is very important to me. I have special feelings in particular for the apostrophe and the serial comma, and I’m a big fan of them both. Those of you interested in apostrophes might enjoy the
Apostrophe Protection Society’s website, and those of you who don’t think you’re interested should check it out anyway. You might learn (or re-learn) a few thing’s, I mean, things.

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