Every month or so, we round up some of the questions we've received about the English language and attempt to respond to them cheerfully, lucidly--sometimes even sensibly. This month, in recognition of National Punctuation Day on September 24, we focus on two frequently abused points: apostrophes and quotation marks.
- I know that in American usage a period goes inside a closing quotation mark: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." But what about exclamation points and question marks: inside or outside of the quotation marks?
Inside if the quotation itself is an exclamation or question:
The boy asked, "Is this a kissing book?"
Count Rugen shouted, "Stop saying that!"
But outside if the question mark or exclamation point doesn't belong to the quotation:
Which character in the movie kept repeating the word "inconceivable"?
- If "its" is the possessive form of the pronoun ("a bird in its cage") and "it's" is the contraction for "it is," what is "its'"--with the apostrophe after the "s"?
- I'm currently working for a man with a broken wrist, typing all of his emails, notes etc. He works with a lot of forms titled with initials like "MP" and "CGL." When he refers to multiple forms, he wants me to put an apostrophe between the acronym and the "s"--such as, "We need to file more MP's." I just flinch every time I do this. As I understand it, you use an apostrophe for possessives ("the MP's formatting is wrong") but not plurals. He contends that the rule is different for acronyms. He's the boss, so he wins the argument, but I either need to be vindicated or to be told I'm wrong and work at accepting the apostrophe.
Like you and your boss, style guides disagree on this one. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2002) advises us to use the apostrophe "for terms like PC's, TV's, and VCR's." However, The Associated Press Stylebook (2007) tells us not to use the apostrophe with "plurals of numerals or multiple-letter combinations: 'She knows her ABCs. I gave him five IOUs. Four VIPs were there.'" Like you, I happen to favor the Associated Press policy. Let the unpunctuated "s" signal plurals. Reserve the apostrophe for contractions and possession. Unless, of course, you work for The New York Times.
- When is it correct to use single quotes (' ') instead of double quotes (" ")?
Most American style guides recommend using single quotation marks to enclose a quotation that appears within another quotation:
"I said to her," Mr. Bush reported, referring to First Lady Laura Bush, "make sure the rug says 'Optimistic person comes to work.'"
Notice that two separate quotation marks appear at the end of the sentence: a single mark to close the rug's observation and a double mark to close the president's report. (By the way, the British customarily reverse this order: first using single quotation marks--or "inverted commas"--and then turning to double quotation marks to enclose quotations within quotations.)
- My son recently brought home a test with two questions wrong. I will write the sentences below, and explain the issues I am having.
- The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go?) (I say either "dog's" OR "dogs'" because we don't know if it's ONE dog with many collars or multiple dogs with one collar.)
- The singers music stands are very tall. (Where does the apostrophe go?) (Again, same issue: one singer with many stands or many singers each with their own stand?)
Any advice would be greatly appreciated as I have a meeting with the teacher on Monday and want to make sure I am not overlooking something. I already had a talk with her, and she seemed like she was unwilling to bend, so I am in for a pretty big fight and want all the help I can get.
You're right: both sentences are ambiguous. We have no way of knowing if the possessive noun in either sentence is singular or plural. As you suggest, it's not absurd to imagine that a single dog might have more than one collar (my cat has two, neither of which he wears) or a solitary singer could have multiple music stands.
If you and the teacher are still talking, you might gently suggest to her that punctuation depends in part on context--and that a bit more context on the quiz could have eliminated the ambiguity. For example:
- I have two dogs. The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go? dogs') OR
- I have a dog. The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go? dog's)
Please let me know if you have made any headway with the teacher--though at this point you may be ready to join the Campaign to Abolish the Apostrophe.
More About Punctuation:
- Basic Rules of Punctuation
- Guidelines for Using Apostrophes Correctly
- The Campaign to Abolish the Apostrophe
- Guidelines for Using Quotation Marks Effectively
Do you have any language questions? If so, please send them our way by clicking on the "comments" button below.