Evanston RoundTable, Aug. 9, 2018
Aug. 16 is International Apostrophe Day (right, who knew?) and to celebrate let us examine a short story, “Displaced,” in the current New Yorker by the estimable Richard Ford, winner of the Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner and many other fiction awards.
In the piece he writes from the perspective of a 16-year-old who has lost his father: “And there is your mother and her loss to fill—at least, to step into—while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”
Let us examine that fine and not-so-fine sentence. It has elegance and intelligence. “…her loss to fill—at least to step into–…” acknowledges that from a boy’s perspective, attending to a parent’s mortal grief is unavoidable—and impossible. The loss is staggering. He is too young to manage it, try as he must and try, in some fumbling, adolescent fashion, as he will.
But authors have a tendency to overwrite (certainly this one does—it’s so much fun!), and there’s this in Mr. Ford’s story that comes next: “…while you manage all your own sensations, and others.”
What others? If they are your own sensations there are no others. You cannot have sensations that are not your own. Does Mr. Ford mean others’ (note the all-critical apostrophe) indicating all other people whose emotions he needs to manage or at least deal with—his BFFs, his mother’s well-meaning friends, the school social worker, all the folks who will walk up to him at the funeral service (and for years after) and say: “I knew your dad, I worked with him, he was a fine man, you were lucky to have him for a father,” all while he’s thinking, who is this person they are talking about?
That would be an OK sentence, though one could quibble with trying to pack all that presumed meaning into one lowly grammatical mark.
But wait, there is none! Bells and whistles, klaxons and sirens are going off: no apostrophe!
So strike that reading from the record.
That leaves zero reasons to couple the caboose of “…, and others” to the rest of this train.
This isn’t a criticism of Richard Ford, or the editors and fact-checkers at the New Yorker. I’ve read many of Mr. Ford’s novels and their lean, sinewy prose and vivid characters are stunning. Even Homer nods, as they say.
My point is that the missing apostrophe is like a bulletin board upon which we can hang the sign: “Bad Sentence, Confusing Structure, Unclear Meaning.” OK, so it’s a big sign. But you see it around a lot.
I could adduce many famous examples of the confusion and despondency engendered by a missing or misplaced apostrophe. You can find them yourself at the hilariously named website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” which is sub-titled “The Worlds’ Worst. Punctuation;”
It’s just that this story is hot off the New Yorker’s presses, just in time to celebrate apostrophe’s (or is that apostrophes’?) very own day.