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For many writers the apostrophe presents a recurring problem. This is not the fault of the apostrophe. It is a perfectly innocent and useful mark of punctuation, but it's a stray cat that won't go home. It hangs around, twitching its tail, and you don't know quite what to do with the thing.

Let us recur to fundamentals. In everyday use the apostrophe serves only two purposes: It indicates omission, or it indicates possession. That is about all this cat does.

The most troublesome usage lies in the confusion of IT'S and ITS. Consider some Horrid Examples.

The people who make EarthGrains bread -- excellent breads, by the way -- advertised their product in a Sunday supplement: "Bread at It's Best."

From Majestic Greetings came a birthday card expressing a hope that "life will always bring it's nicest things to you."

National Review informed us in August that "the ratio of marijuana's lethal dose to it's effective dose is 40,000-to-1."

No, no, and no! In each instance the writer was mistakenly saying "it is," which is not what the writer wanted at all. His purpose was to show possession. The ad writer wanted bread at ITS best, because the quality of being best belongs to the bread. The greeting card should have read "ITS nicest things." The reference to marijuana's effective dose required ITS because the dose belongs to the plant.

Often it works the other way. A newsletter of the Broome County Public Library advised patrons that fire laws limit occupancy of the Children's Room to 15 persons. Visitors are welcome "unless your the 16th person!" An apostrophe was needed to indicate omission: "unless YOU'RE the 16th person."

A large sign outside a home in Charleston, S.C., carried a happy message, only slightly marred by misspelling: "ITS A BOY." The excited parents may be forgiven. The missing apostrophe was doubtless the least of their concerns.

As bothersome as the omitted apostrophe is the needless and unwanted apostrophe. This often appears on mailboxes: The Rutherfords', The Tildens', The Clevelands'. Friends of Public Television put out a Christmas catalog last year. On the front cover was a prettily wrapped package bearing "Greetings from the Weisman's." Why the apostrophes? Strike 'em out!

A bank in Hollywood, Fla., promoted its efficiency in transferring funds: "Call an inTouch representative, use a Touch-Tone telephone, or pre-authorize the transfer. The choice is your's." Stray cat! Let us try, "the choice is yours."

Unloved apostrophes turn up everywhere. In Denver, "Flood victims' growing weary." In Indianapolis, "Rodney Dangerfield get's 'no respect.' " In Augusta, Ga., "Jeep Cherokee's." In Columbus, Ohio, "attorney's at law." In San Antonio an ad for the University of the Incarnate Word promotes "Bachelor's of Arts in English."

The St. Augustine (Fla.) Record carried a guest column in January asking a good question: "By who's values are we teaching our children?" In Eugene, Ore., in June of last year, the Register-Guard reported praise for baseball manager Jim Saul "whose tried to keep the pressure off his young pros." The writers wanted "WHOSE values" and "WHO'S tried."

Controversies continue over the stylistic use of the apostrophe. Just about every newspaper but the New York Times has dropped the apostrophe from dates. Things happened in the 1920's in The Times, but in the 1920s everywhere else.

More and more newspapers are playing punctuation by ear. At one time the rule was simply to add a naked apostrophe to Louis' saxophone and Charles' lawyer. This is not the way we pronounce the proper names. We say Louisuz saxophone and Charlesuz lawyer, and preferably we will punctuate the same way: Louis's saxophone, Charles's lawyer.

The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal got it right last November in a headline: "Court's reading of heiress's will helps foundation by $8 million." The Harper Collins publishers got it right in summarizing a novel: "Hawkins's loyalty is ensured . . ." With a few exceptions, it's the sound that controls the punctuation.

The function of the apostrophe is to serve the same purpose served by the comma, the dash, the colon and all the others. The editors of the Chicago Manual of Style put it this way:

"Punctuation should be governed by its function, which is to make the author's meaning clear, to promote ease of reading, and in varying degrees to contribute to the author's style . . ."

Don't be afraid of the apostrophe. Just pet the little squiggle and remember the rule of omission or possession.

Universal Press Syndicate

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