Polishing Your Prose, Part 6: How to Be Smarter than Everyone Else


We've reached the six-month mark of this series. Frankly, no matter what happens next, I'm impressed with myself. Five solid writing posts for your reading enjoyment. You're welcome. 

For this month's Polishing Your Prose segment, I want to talk about smarts. Grammatical smarts, to be exact. If you're my friend in real life, you've heard me rant many times about the word literally. It's used incorrectly the majority of the time, and I think people need to be educated on its correct meaning. I wrote a post about it a few months ago while I was editing a book written by someone who clearly did not understand how to use literally correctly. 

His face literally dripped compassion. 
Umm, no. Ew.

Don't be that person. Know what you're saying and writing. Which brings me to the topic of Part 6: How to Be Smarter than Everyone Else. Two simple rules: know how to use apostrophes and quotation marks.  

But I don't care if I know how to use an apostrophe, you think. And I do know how to use quotation marks. To that I say, you should, and you don't. So let's start with the tiny punctuation mark that instantly gets anyone who has ever addressed a greeting card. 

How to Be Smarter than Everyone Else #1: The Apostrophe

My last name is Bumgarner. I am one person, a singular Bumgarner. 
My husband is a Bumgarner as well. Singular. 
Together, we are a family of two people, plural: the [wait for it...] Bumgarners

For Christmas my in-laws received a decorative platter as a gift. It's currently sitting on a shelf in the living room, and it says this: The Bumgarner's. Clearly whoever wrote this did not understand the correct use of an apostrophe. Here's why: 

An apostrophe denotes possession. 

Like this: Amanda Bumgarner's apartment. Amanda Bumgarner's husband. So in the case of the platter, the Bumgarner's...what? It's incomplete and incorrect. No one owns anything, so the apostrophe shouldn't be there. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason the absence of an apostrophe looks strange, and everyone starts throwing it in there like it fits. Who was the first person to do this? I don't know, but they should hope I never find them.

I've been training my own dear mother on this very concept. Whenever she addresses an envelope, she wants to add an apostrophe: The Reese's, The Short's, The Anderson's. 

And I have to say, "No, Mom, that's not right." I've given her such a hard time about it that she's stopped doing it, and now she's smarter than everyone else. Or, at least smarter than the people who still do it wrong, which doesn't have to be you if you're paying attention. 

Okay, now what happens if you have plural people who possess something? What then?
Jordan and I together are: the Bumgarners. We own a car, so an apostrophe is needed somewhere to show possession. Here's how it would look:

The Bumgarners' car. 

This is a simple rule that is grossly misused by the majority of English speakers. Become part of the minority who's smarter than the majority and learn how to use an apostrophe to show possession. If nothing is being owned, don't use it.

How to Be Smarter than Everyone Else #2: Quotation Marks

My second concern is that of quotation marks. These are most commonly used with dialogue, as seen in the following sentence: "Why are you so awkward?" she asked.

Here's where it gets tricky: scare quotes. These are quotes around an individual word or phrase, usually when quoting from another source. Hypothetical example sentence: 

My brother went out on a date last night, but he didn't like the girl because he said she "had a pointy nose" and "looked like she had just crawled out of bed."

In this case I'm using scare quotes because I want you to know that those are his exact words. This is a perfectly acceptable use of quotation marks, especially since in this case I wouldn't want anyone to think I said those hypothetical things. 

Quotation marks can also be used to note sarcasm when applicable: I find him "attractive."
This means you don't, in fact, find him attractive. Instead it means that you are using a secret code language that you came up with with your girlfriends. To you, attractive = Giantlike with warts.

Unfortunately, more often than not I see a flagrant misuse of quotation marks. This must end now. This blog is the perfect example of what I mean; it's called The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks, and it's full of pictures showing quotes being placed on storefront signs where they should not be. 
  • Please keep "children" with you at all times.  (So are they children, or do you mean pets? Or perhaps you mean your husband?)
  • Employees must "wash hands" before returning to work. (Or rub their hands together under water without actually using soap.)
  • We sell "real" meat. (In other words, fake meat.)
Hopefully you see what I'm talking about. Unintentional sarcasm can be your worst enemy if you want people (customers, whathaveyou) to a) take you seriously and b) not be scared of you or your possibly shady establishment or questionable personal morals.

So the next time you address an envelope, place your apostrophe carefully. And when you go to write quotes around a word or start to do "air quotes," consider why you're using them. Is it really something that is being quoted? Are you being sarcastic? If not, just don't, and you'll be well on your way to being "smarter" than "everyone" else. 

I only tell you because I "care."
Amanda Bumgarner's
Anonymous said...

Yes. Just... YES. "Thank you" for this post. It is informative as well as hilarious. As well as smart.


Anonymous said...

Amen, sister. I mean, if I see one more of those "free kitten's" signs on the side of the road, I will set every single one of those "kitten's" free in the wild.

Also, you should do a post on the single scare quote, which is also often misused. (Read: Just don't use it if you don't know what it's for)

Unknown said...

I'm late to the party, but I liked this a lot. You made me laugh, as you are want to do. :)