Apostrophe abuse

The Johnson is...what?

Dear Conan,

I was just in another state which uses the apostrophe quite frequently for a surname on their name plates at the front door or mail boxes. For example: The Johnson’s. I know that there should not be an apostrophe before the s but after when they are referring to all of the family. I know that you have spoken about apostrophes/possession before but I can’t remember if you mentioned anything about the above usage. I suppose I will have to let go of the mistake because I was soooo outnumbered by my family in the discussion of which was right or wrong…




Dear Sheryl,

An apostrophe NEVER renders anything plural. When you write “The Johnson’s,” you are saying “The Johnson is” or “That belongs to the Johnson.” As you can see, neither makes any sense whatsoever.

When you use an apostrophe after the name, as in “The Johnsons’,” you are saying, “This belongs to the Johnsons,” which does make sense if it’s a nameplate on a door or mailbox. It is incorrect, however, if you say “The party is given by the Johnsons’.” What you’re saying is that the party is being given by something that belongs to the Johnsons. In other words, that apostrophe makes the name possessive. Dig?

But isn’t it interesting how people believe that determining grammar is a democratic process?

Your ally in correctness,


What about semicolons?

Don't even think about it.

Okay, first off, I’m toying with the idea of just telling you to expunge this poseur punctuation mark like a common plantar wart. In my opinion, semicolons are the skin virus of writing. They’re not only archaic, but also pretentious. So if I were your editor, I would excise every single pompous little pause mark you threw in there. But I know you won’t let me do that. So I’m going to tell you exactly how to use them. Continue reading

Let’s open up the (virtual) mailbag

The mail bag is starting to overflow, so let’s open ‘er up, shall we?

Dear Conan:

If I want to express gratitude for someone copying me on an email or such, should I say “I really appreciate your keeping me informed” or “I really appreciate you keeping me informed,” or something else? I suppose I could avoid the problem by saying “Thanks for keeping me informed,” but that would mean I don’t need to consult the grammar guru.

~Mark Continue reading

Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.

Brevity: next to godliness

There, there. Let Mama read you some Hemingway.

I think I’ve finally figured out the genesis of wordy writing: high school English teachers. When my oldest daughter was a freshman, she took a final exam in which she was forced to write two full paragraphs on prompts like

Give three ways that Charles Dickens creates suspense in Great Expectations, and discuss the effectiveness.

What would a proper response be?

Dickens uses foreshadowing, mysterious plot lines and the slowing down of time to create suspense. Each element succeeds in making the reader interested in what will happen next.

These two sentences answer the prompt concisely and directly. Our student writer could then,  in succinct fashion, delineate how each of these elements succeed. But students are penalized for such brevity — they are required to hit a certain word count. Conan’s spawn was forced to use meaningless filler phrases such as

  • at this point in time
  • had an effect upon
  • in order to
  • for the purpose of
  • until such time as
  • with the possible exception of
  • in my personal opinion

Oh, the humanity!

In the interest of brevity, I’ll say no more.

Cassandra pointed out that my original draft was a little too brief. I’ve amended it based on her comments. Thanks, Cassandra!

Good vs. well

Coconut cocktail, anyone?

Dear Conan:

I have a request for an article, since you seem to be accepting them: good vs. well.

I think I have a pretty good handle on the English language and grammar, even though I didn’t do so well in my English (now language arts — yuck!) classes in high school.

But I’m still confused by good vs. well — note the above. I see you wrote “their dentist who did really good in English in junior high edit their masterworks,” and now I’m all confused.

Please help!

~Mark Continue reading