Comma Crusader Brings Good Grammar to Traffic Court and Wins

ISTOCK
ISTOCK

Grammar nerds are a committed league who often fight the good fight in the hope of seeing their victories spelled out on the page. But every once in a while, the consequences of proper punctuation leap from 2-D print into 3-D courtroom drama. (Insert Law & Order sound effects.)

In 2014, Andrea Cammelleri was ticketed for a pretty run-of-the-mill offense: leaving her pickup truck parked on a street for too long. Specifically, the village ordinance in West Jefferson, Ohio said it was against the law to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” longer than 24 hours.

That language is pretty cut and dry, but upon closer reading, you might notice something fishy. Cammelleri did. At her trial, the defendant argued “the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a motor vehicle camper from being parked on the street for an extended period of time.”

Cammelleri doesn’t have a “motor vehicle camper” because, well, what the heck is a motor vehicle camper? The ordinance should have read “motor vehicle, camper…”

The court argued that anyone reading the ordinance would know that it was a typo and simply missing a comma. Cammelleri was convicted, but she wasn’t done with her punctuation crusade. She filed an appeal.

This time, the scales of justice went the way the grammar gods would want. In his ruling, 12th District Court of Appeals Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote, “By utilizing rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, 'motor vehicle camper' has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.’”

Whether it was a clever trick to get out of a pesky parking citation, or an earnest quest to right this world’s comma crimes, Cammelleri illustrated why proper punctuation shouldn’t be just a matter of style—it should be the law of the land.

What the Death of the Apostrophe Protection Society Means for Grammarians

Snow toy's what?
Snow toy's what?
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In November 2019, retired journalist John Richards announced that he was disbanding the Apostrophe Protection Society, a primarily internet-based organization he founded in 2001 as a resource for writers. Richards’s first reason for the shutdown was simply that, at 96 years old, he wanted to cut back on his commitments—but it was his second reason that alarmed meticulous editors and self-proclaimed grammarians around the world.

“Fewer organizations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language,” Richards wrote on the site. “The ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The announcement prompted a small avalanche of articles with headlines like “Have We Murdered the Apostrophe?” (from the BBC) and “Is There a Question Mark Over the Apostrophe’s Future?” (from The New European), many of which pondered different angles of the same sad question: Is the apostrophe actually necessary?

To oversimplify a very complex, centuries-long discussion, the answer is an unsatisfying “It depends.” If you ask someone who thinks written language should be a reflection of spoken language, they might say no—after all, we don’t pronounce apostrophes. “The cat’s meow” sounds exactly like “The cats meow.” And, while we don’t usually say “Period” at the end of our sentences, periods and other punctuation marks are translated through speech; upward inflection indicates a question mark, a brief pause implies a comma, and so on.

Other people, however, argue that even if apostrophes don’t reveal themselves aloud, they’re still important in writing. As Colin Matthews, head of the English department at Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, England, told the BBC, apostrophes are about “clarity in meaning.”

On one hand, Matthews is entirely correct in suggesting that apostrophes make a sentence clearer. On the other hand, the English language doesn’t exactly have a reputation for prioritizing clarity—and if we can use context clues to differentiate between, say, bat as an animal and bat as a weapon, then it stands to reason that we may not need a written apostrophe to understand that “The bats wing is broken” refers to the wing of the bat (which is, of course, of the animal variety).

Furthermore, Richards’s suggestion that this apostrophe catastrophe is a modern development isn’t totally accurate. As Merriam-Webster points out, we’ve been debating if and how apostrophes should be used for centuries; even William Shakespeare was inconsistent about it.

That said, it’s definitely possible that the ever-expanding digital landscape has unintentionally encouraged a general lack of care for apostrophes—you can’t use them in social media hashtags, for instance, and the fast-paced, often bite-sized nature of online content means that there are many more opportunities for mistakes, and much less time committed to preventing them. But, as many a linguist will tell you, that’s just how language works; it changes to better fit how we use it.

"[The evolution of language is] nothing that we can try to stop, it’s inevitable," New York University linguistics professor Laurel Mackenzie told the BBC.

Since this evolution often happens slowly, you can rest easy knowing that the death of the Apostrophe Protection Society definitely doesn’t mean the death of the apostrophe itself; and, if your tattoo artist forgets to include one in your latest tattoo, you should probably ask them to somehow squeeze it in.

[h/t BBC]

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

welcomia/iStock via Getty Images
welcomia/iStock via Getty Images

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the more than 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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