Is Google killing privacy?

Those troublesome apostrophe’s

Arianna Huffington goes nonlinear in this great story on Salon about the misuse of apostrophes. You’ve all seen these type of mistakes, of course — using an apostrophe to pluralize a noun. And you all know (god, I hope so, anyway!) that this is agrammatical. But when Huffington gets into a big fight with her daughter over this, her daughter refuses to believe that using an apostrophe to pluralize isn’t acceptable, because everyone does it that way: Advertisers, other kids at school, and even — remarkably — the teachers at her kid’s school.

But here’s the rub. Huffington spies a pluralizing apostrophe in the New York Times, and the lid flies off:

Things only got worse the next morning when, while reading the New York Times, I came across not one, but two examples of apostrophes being put in the wrong place — including one in a column by my hero, Paul Krugman. In writing about inherited wealth, the erudite Princeton professor made mention of “Today’s imperial C.E.O.’s.” Isabella’s words echoed in my brain: “This is how everyone does it here.”

Flummoxed, I got ahold of the New York Times’ manual of style and, to my horror, discovered that the paper’s rash of apostrophe errors had not been the result of sloppy copy-editing but a conscious executive decision to ignore the rules of proper punctuation.

Is it possible that grammar is going to change? That the apostrophe will eventually become so commonly misused for pluralization that it’s eventually accepted as grammatically correct? After all, grammar is just an agreement of a set way of doing things.

In fact, I tend to get in fights with editors over my use of antiquated punctuation. Specifically, I frequently enjoy stringing tons of clauses together using semicolons. Then the drama begins: I’ll submit a story full of them; the editor will go nuts; I’ll resist; they’ll fight back; and in the end, they’ll remove just about any sentence that vaguely resembles the one I’m currently writing. Nicholson Baker once wrote a brilliant essay, reprinted in his The Size of Thoughts, called “The History of Punctuation.” He noted a ton of really weird pieces of punctuation that once were considered grammatically correct, but have vanished like the dodo. One of them was a colon followed by an em-dash — i.e. ” :— “. How cool is that? I’ve considered using stuff like that in stories, but I’m afraid my editors’ heads would simply explode.

(Update: Franco Baseggio wrote me to note that Eugene Volokh has issued a very well-researched riposte to Huffington’s article. Volokh checks the 1989 Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the 1996 New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and the 1985 Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, and finds they all accept the use of apostrophes for pluralization. “Seems to me that if the Language Police want to publicly accuse someone (even an anonymous someone), they should be quite sure that their targets are in fact guilty,” he notes.

Point well taken — though personally, apostrophic pluralizations still just kinda look wrong to me.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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