Rantings of a sub-editor

March 12, 2011

The mother of apostrophe dilemmas

Filed under: Mother's Day,punctuation — substuff @ 4:58 pm

Around this time every year, someone always raises the question of Mother’s Day. Of three things you can be sure:

  1. It won’t be my brother
  2. Much tutting and sighing will be done over apostrophes, singular mothers, plural mothers and generic mothers 
  3. By this time next year, we’ll all have forgotten again

This year is different. Yes! This year I will excite you with tidbits that may even be true, our memories will be stimulated and next year we shall be able to nod sagely and answer without hesitation when some other fool raises the question.

Mother’s Day was founded in America by Anna Jarvis. She started campaigning for it in 1905, following the death of her mother, and seven years later trademarked both “Mother’s Day” and the phrase “second Sunday in May”. According to this rather lovely article on Canada.com:

She was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

Incidentally, Jarvis went on to campaign against the commercialisation of Mother’s Day. But before you consider making that argument when you forget your flowers on 3rd April (note my handy warning), beware – the alternative is to wear a carnation and write a heartfelt letter. Suddenly M&S doesn’t sound so bad, huh?

However, we Brits, because we are super, actually had our own celebration before the Americans got in on the act (the sixteenth century, according to that bastion of accuracy, Wikipedia). It was always the fourth Sunday in Lent and girls in domestic service were given the day off to visit their “mother church” (nearest chunkily sized church or cathedral, so far as I can work out).

Somewhere along the way it became a day to visit mothers, and lo a need for cake came to pass, along with a need to decorate it with 11 disciples. Now I’m not sure whether one baked it for one’s mother or with one’s mother, but either way, a simnel cake was magicked into the world. And just this once I’m going to grace you with a recipe to enjoy with your gratuitous word facts [slobber]. Don’t get used to it. However, because of the rules of Lent, until Easter the only permitted interaction with the cake was to look at it. Yum.

Mothering Sunday lost popularity in the industrial revolution, but when we met those golden and strapping Americans and Canadians during the second world war, we decided we liked it again. We kept our traditional date, though, and still celebrate on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which this year puts us one week ahead of the US.

The short version, though, is Mother’s day. Apostrophe ess. “Mothering Sunday” now, unfortunately, just sounds too quaint.

I want cake.


March 31, 2010

Marketing gold?!

Filed under: punctuation — substuff @ 2:06 pm

Oh marketing people, bless your little cotton socks but you’re a nasty lot. Did you ever consider us poor grocery-bound sub-editors when you named this new ice cream? Hmm? It’s a Magnum. And it’s gold. So to call it Magnum Gold would have been just fine. Just fine and dandy.*

So what was with the ‘?!’, hmm? See, even just to write that sentence, I had to add a ‘hmm’ so that my question mark would not butt up against your crazy question-and-exclamation-mark combo (and still I sweated about the comma).

Anyone writing about this product looks damn crazy. Witness:

Unilever is combining a bit of rough with the smooth, as Wolfman star Benicio del Toro replaces Eva Longoria as the face – and eyebrows – of Magnum Gold?!

Yes, it looks as though the reporter either can’t quite believe what he or she is writing, or is a little deranged. As a sub-editor, I just couldn’t take it: this esteemed publication will be docking you of your ‘?!’ in copy. Now I suggest [wagging finger] you go and have a long think about what you’ve done!

*Having just done a Google image search for ‘Magnum Gold’, I wonder if Unilever knew how outnumbered the ice cream would be by horses and guns…

March 17, 2010

What a difference a comma makes

Filed under: comma,punctuation — substuff @ 2:17 pm
Tags: ,

Here’s a sentence for you:

Although Nina was released without charge by the police less than a week later she received a letter from a civil recovery firm demanding the princely sum of £137.50.

So, when was Nina released? And when did she receive the letter? Did she spend a week in jail?

Having checked, I have changed it to:

Although Nina was released without charge by the police later that day, less than a week later she received a letter from a civil recovery firm demanding the princely sum of £137.50.

March 15, 2010

James’s apostrophe

Filed under: James's apostrophe,punctuation — substuff @ 3:57 pm
Tags: ,

Once upon a wine-fuelled Friday night, I was called on to settle an old score between two friends. One, let’s call him Dave, insisted that James’s name, in the possessive, should be spelt exactly thus. James, on the other hand, maintained that he needed no s and that the apostrophe should stand alone: James’.

I said that I thought it went on pronunciation: so in this case, James’s, but in the case of a name where the extra ‘iz’ is not pronounced (frustratingly I couldn’t think of a good example), the final s would be omitted. But then I got slightly confused because I knew there was some different rule about Jesus, which I couldn’t put my finger on.

Today, I have gone to the authorities and I can declare Dave victorious.

Fowler’s says:

Use ‘s for the possessive case in English names and surnames whenever possible; ie in all monosyllables and disyllables, and in longer words accented on the penult, as Burns’s, Charles’s, Cousins’s, Dickens’s, Hicks’s, St James’s Square, Thomas’s, Zacharius’s. It is customary, however, to omit the ‘s when the last syllable of the name is pronounced /-IZ/, as in Bridges’, Moses’. Jesus’ is also an acceptable liturgical archaism.

The Guardian’s style guide says, succinctly:

Words ending in -s use use -s’s (Dickens’s house): for plurals, use -s’.

And The Times’s (yes, s’s) says:

With proper names/nouns ending in s that are singular, follow the rule of writing what is voiced, eg, Keats’s poetry, Sobers’s batting, The Times’s style (or Times style); and with names where the final “s” is soft, use the “s” apostrophe, eg, Rabelais’ writings, Delors’ presidency; plurals follow normal form, as Lehman Brothers’ loss etc
Note that with Greek names of more than one syllable that end in “s”, generally do not use the apostrophe “s”, eg, Aristophanes’ plays, Achilles’ heel, Socrates’ life, Archimedes’ principle; but note Jesus’s (not Jesus’) parables.

Jesus, I note, is torn. He gets away with no s in Fowler’s, but is commanded to take one by The Times. James, however, is well and truly decided. Take your apostrophe and your s, sir – and we shall have no head-kicking* in response, thank you very much.

*Upon first meeting me, James kicked me in the head, allegedly by accident. I’m sure he’s not the only one to have felt the urge.

February 9, 2010

three dots

Filed under: punctuation,three dots — substuff @ 11:33 am
Tags: ,

Those three little dots are driving me mad.

Three dots. Space before? Space after?

The way I see it, there are two usages for the little buggers.

  1. as an ellipsis, to show that something has been left out
  2. to imply continuation or trailing off

In my opinion, the first should have a space before and after. “She went to … School in Bognor Regis.” And if it’s at the end of a sentence, you have four dots instead – one being the full stop.

In the second case, I don’t think there should be a space between the end of the sentence and the three dots. “I think it should just be allowed to trail…” In face, if there were a space before the three dots it could lead to confusion – you might think they signalled omission.

Although I can find plenty of guidance on the use of dots as ellipses, I can’t find anything about the second usage.

If you know, please spill the beans (or if you just want to tell me you think I’m right – that tends to go down pretty well too)!

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