Punctuation Marks – 2

Just as many people are afraid of the comma (in that they don’t know how it works or when to use it), so, too, they’re afraid of the apostrophe. Probably more than they’re afraid of the comma!

The apostrophe was used in French before it was used in English, and in French it was used to indicate an elision — one or more letters missing from a word. As in Let’s go to a movie, there’s a good one playing just down the street, and it’s been ages since we’ve eaten popcorn. During the 1500s learned Englishmen and Englishwomen imitated the French by importing the apostrophe to indicate elisions.

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English was full of elisions. Think of any of Dickens’ novels. Or British mysteries, with words such as t’night and prob’ly. Some pages look as if a careless writer spilled a saltshaker of apostrophes over everything. Personally, I find too many such apostrophes intrusive to my reading experience. One or two per page, okay. Seven or eight . . . bothersome!

In addition to showing that some letters have been omitted, an apostrophe can also be used to show possession. Based on today’s evidence, I’m guessing that the apostrophe as a mark that shows possession will disappear from American English altogether.

Most people seem terrified by this little punctuation mark and don’t know how to use it to show possession. Or plurals. They seem to just throw the apostrophe in wherever they find an s! A sign that should read Fresh peaches, $2/pound might read Fresh peache’s, $2/pound. Or, Fresh peaches’, $2/pound.

In written language possession is fairly easy to infer. Dad painted Jasons bikes bright red, but Mom painted Saras bikes lime green. That probably looks strange to somebody who uses apostrophes correctly — but it looks a lot better than Dad painted Jasons’ bike’s bright red, but Mom painted Saras bike’s lime green. Perhaps in such cases misusage is worse than no usage. (The correct way to punctuate that sentence is as follows: Dad painted Jason’s bikes bright red, but Mom painted Sara’s bikes lime green.)

Unlike the apostrophe, the slash mark travels under so many different names, I’m not sure it can be trusted. It can be called The Slash (/), the Forward Slash, the Solidus, or the Virgule. I wasn’t taught the slash mark when in high school, nor when in college, and for those reasons I tend to think of it as a modern punctuation mark — more recent, say, than the comma or colon or semicolon.

RomanVirgilFolio014rVergilPortraitBut I am wrong. The slash was used during the days of Ancient Rome, and it made its way into Middle Ages manuscripts, where one slash represented a comma and two slashes (how bold!) represented a dash. The two slashes eventually straightened themselves out to look like a modern-day equals sign (=), but that sign was still a dash, not a mathematical symbol. Eventually the two horizontal dashes (=) became a single dash, which we still use today

The basic purpose of the slash today is to indicate per, as in $500/week. It is often used to indicate alternatives, as in and/or, but books such as The Chicago Manual of Style suggest this expression be avoided because its meaning is unclear. Use the word and, use the word or, or rewrite the sentence another way.

What Jack/Jill will be going up the hill means is this: Either Jack alone or Jill alone or the two of them together will be going up the hill. You can see why people prefer to use the slash mark rather than write out the possibilities indicated by the slash mark.

My favorite use of the slash mark is to indicate line breaks in quoted poetry. To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Unlike the slash mark, the colon has always impressed me as a straightforward punctuation mark, easily understood. (Much more so than the sneaky semicolon.)

Basically a colon is used to introduce a series, the items in the series being examples of the statement that comes in front of the colon. But the colon should not be used to create a list that is really the object of the verb. Here are two examples:

CORRECT — The necessities of life include these: air, water, food, shelter.
INCORRECT — The necessities of life include: air, water, food, shelter.

panctuationIn the correct example, the pronoun these is the object of the verb include. So the first example is correct: the items after the colon rename, or serve as examples, of these.

In the incorrect example, the verb include is being separated from its object. In the incorrect example the words in front of the colon do not constitute a complete sentence. The necessities of life include is not a complete sentence.

The colon is an emphatic punctuation mark. Not as emphatic as the dash, but still, it commands one’s attention. A colon can be used between two independent clauses when the second clause explains the first, expands upon it, illustrates it, or paraphrases it.

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote one day after tasting a particularly assertive wasabi.

Note to Self

Bite of wasabi:
Eyes go sobby.

Tasting wasabi:
Eschew as hobby.


There is no wasabi in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

8 responses to “Punctuation Marks – 2”

  1. I knew I might be going out on a limb when I said in a previous comment that the apostrophic possessive came from Germanic languages. i was probably half right. The German possessive ends in ‘s’ but the custom of replacing a letter or letters in a word with an apostrophe comes into English from French. Therefore, Old English ‘lambes’ became over time ‘lamb’s.’ Do any of you who are historical linguists or well versed in German wish to comment on what I’ve just written?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interestingly, I interpreted your comment the way you meant it, that the “s” ending came from German, because I had mentioned earlier in the blog that the apostrophe came from France. I wonder where the French acquired the apostrophe — did somebody just think it up, or did it come from Latin. I’ll have to look this up.


  2. Thanks very much for your reply, Barbara. the trickiest part of learning how to use apostrophes in English is knowing what to do if a singular count noun ends in s. Fortunately, modern English uses two ways. ‘The book which belongs to Mr. Jones’ can be written as ‘Mr. Jones’ book’ or ‘Mr. Jones’s book’ The plural of Jones is, of course, Joneses, and we follow the rules for plural possessives with that. Thus, ‘the house which belongs to the Jones family’ is ‘the Joneses’ house.’ This is how we teach it to foreign adults.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara, this is a very good blog. Regarding apostrophes, what we ESL teachers tell our foreign students of English is that we normally use use the apostrophe when talking about people and the of + noun construction when talking about things, e.g. ‘the boy’s book’ and ‘the legs of the table.’ I also point out the historical reason why we have two ways of showing possession in English. The apostrophic construction is part of our Germanic language inheritance (Anglo-Saxon) and the of + noun construction is part of our romance language inheritance (Norman French).
    It’s much easier for foreign students of English to remember the names and uses of the semicolon, period and colon if you use the British words for them: half stop, full stop and double stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kit. I love being reminded of the “half stop, full stop, double stop” terminology. I always loved it, but haven’t thought about it in years. Also, very interesting information on the two kinds of possessions in English, one from Anglo-Saxon, one from French. The “of” is so much easier for most people to understand . . . but it sounds so formal, and takes longer to say, so most people speak the apostrophe-s possessives: they simply have trouble visualizing and spelling them in the written language.


    • Mr. Armagno, thanks very much for using that old Amish proverb in your reply. i don’t know where you grew up or where you live now, but I learned it at The Town House restaurant in Media, PA (suburban Philadelphia). The restaurant used to give patrons a sheet of paper with a drawing of an old Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) man and that proverb underneath it.
      The Town House is the only restaurant I’ve ever been in which had the captain of the waiters and waitresses wearing a navy captain’s shoulder boards on his jacket to signify his status.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mr. Crissey, I’m a Buckeye and grew up in Northeast Ohio (Cleveland area). I too visited many Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish locations in Ohio. One of my favorite trips, now days, is a winters sleigh ride–Jingle Bells and all–through the forest at Ma & Pa’s Cabin in Burton, Ohio. As for that quote, my German mother-in-law had it on a plaque hanging in the kitchen. I remember the scent of sauerkraut cooking on the stove top and sitting looking at the sign. Thanks, Lou

        Liked by 1 person

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