2017-08-01 / Features

Make a date with an apostrophe


Okay, here’s the problem.

Way too many of us are putting apostrophes in the wrong place where dates are concerned -- mostly when it comes to writing years.

I can’t tell you how many times things like this cross my desk: She loved Big Band music from the 1940’s. Even better (or worse), I see this repeatedly: She loved Big Band music from the 40’s.

Give me a reason for writing either, please. I’m open to learning new things, but I’ve spent lots of time checking online grammar sites, recalling my elementary school lessons about punctuation and perusing the Associated Press Style Book. Not one of them supports using an apostrophe in situations like the ones I noted above.

That is because apostrophes actually have fairly limited function, but enormous opportunity for application. Specifically, they are used to indicate possession (the girl’s dress, the boys’ cars), to stand in for an omitted letter or letters (I’m lost. She’ll never know.), to make single letters plural (She earned two A’s and three B’s. Mind your p’s and q’s.) and to indicate that a number or numbers have been omitted (She loved Big Band music from the ’40s.)

There are countless opportunities to utilize apostrophes effectively and correctly, as you already know. Still, we insist on making them work overtime at jobs they were never meant to do.

For example, some of us can’t resist sticking an apostrophe in if a word ends in an “s,” whether that word is possessive or not. How many times have you come across something like this in your reading: “All the English teachers’ tried to correct it, without success.”

If we are determined to make English teachers possessively successful in the effort, we should recast the sentence so they actually have something to possess. Correct apostrophe use in a sentence that expresses the same idea would be this one: “All the English teachers’ efforts to correct it were unsuccessful.”

Please tell me you understand the difference. If you are puzzled, contact me privately, however. I have lots of time to lecture but severely limited space on the page to give you the benefit of my experience in writing the English language.

Now, back to my original focus on apostrophes and dates.

When it comes to writing years, stop and think a moment and use your head. If you plan to abbreviate the year by knocking off the first two numerals, then put an apostrophe there to indicate what you have done. Make sure you use the actual apostrophe, though, and not a single quotation mark. Writers who are on the right track otherwise sometimes falter and end up with a phrase or a sentence that looks like this: “The music of the ‘60s was the best.”

I realize computers have minds of their own and are not cooperative in this effort, but it is possible to make even the most stubborn machine bend to your will if you are persistent and determined to be correct.

OK, here’s the curve ball when it comes to dates. If I recast the sample sentence above just a bit, it will be entirely proper -- no, more than that, it will be mandatory -- to use two apostrophes. The first will show an abbreviated effort and the second will correctly express possession. “I think ’60’s music was the best.”

Now, doesn’t that look elegant and doesn’t it give your reader all the information needed at a glance? And that is, really, the goal of all punctuation -- to give clues in print about precisely how the writer intends the reader to utilize the words on the page.

Our voices, our expressions and our movements provide those hints when we speak, sometimes doing the job with great precision and sometimes missing the mark. But if we use precise marks in our written communication, our readers will have reason to thank us, rather than concluding we are foolish dolts.

I’m not sure about you, but I cause readers to question whether or not I am a total ignoramus based on nothing more than my words. I don’t want to seal the deal with the punctuation I choose to help me make my point.

’nough said. Here endeth the lesson.

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