Old-School Curmudgeon Speaks…& Spells

While I have much love for my fellow photographers, can anyone doubt that they are among the worst spellers and punctuators of anyone claiming to write in English?

Though this is primarily a blog about photography and the creative process, recall that its subtitle is “and other stuff that moves me”. Under that broad charter, therefore, I feel at liberty periodically to hold forth on matters of the language, among other arcana. Call it a tedious quirk, but grammar, spelling, and punctuation move me. These kinds of errors drive me batty, even on those rare (think Halley’s-Comet-rare) occasions when I almost make them myself. (I shudder at the prospect.)

The humble apostrophe appears to be particularly vexatious among our photographic kin, especially in its tangled relations with the noun and the pronoun. There, when forming plurals and possessives, it tends to show up when not needed, or get misplaced when it is. To wit, three examples:

…Our shipping department was given information that this item would be coming in yesterday so they held you’re order to ship complete….

…The Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) continues its’ downward turn….

…In March of 2008 Tiger Woods cited a photographers’ camera noise as halting his momentum….

Though not written by a photographer, the first example is from a personal communication I received this very day; its timely arrival, as I write this, demands its inclusion. The latter two are drawn from the widely-read blog of a respected photographer (let’s call him/her RP.) Ironically, a frequent theme of RP’s is professionalism, yet RP often can’t seem to spell or punctuate to save his/her life. It is not my intention to single out RP for special ridicule; but s/he is a reliable source of apostrophe-misuse examples. Where, then, did our failed grammarians/stylists go wrong?

Take the third example first. It ably demonstrates how NOT to form the possessive of a singular noun. Here, an apostrophe is needed, but at one space to the left to transform the word into photographer’s, since the blog author refers to the camera noise of onlya [single] photographer”. The simplified rule: if a noun—regardless of singularity or plurality—ends in something other than s, x, or z, make it possessive by addition of ‘s; if it ends in one of those three, add the apostrophe alone, without the additional trailing s. For anyone who can read the owner’s manual of a professional-level DSLR, this should be easy stuff.

The first and second examples illustrate the more common knocking-around the apostrophe has to endure: its incorrect deployment in forming plurals or possessives of pronouns. Fortunately, this one is even easier to ferret out and purge. Since personal pronouns are irregular, and change their forms to make plurals or possessives (eg. I, we, my, our, you, your, it, its, they, their), they don’t require the apostrophe’s help for those tasks. Apostrophes are needed only to form contractions with the verb to be.

So, if you see a pronoun containing an apostrophe, substitute “[pronoun] is/are” for the contracted form and speak the phrase; if it sounds right, you’re golden. If not, then you’ve formed a contraction where you intended a possessive. (If it’s wrong, yet it still sounds good to you—well, then, you should probably be euthanized.) In the examples above, the writers have written “they held you are order” and “the Washington Post continues it is downward turn”—not the intended meanings, one hopes. Instead, they meant to write “your order” and “its downward turn”. No apostrophes required.

Some of you probably find this entire post pedantic and irrelevant—“Sebastian’s out of photos to show us, so he’s playing schoolmarm”, etc. As long as one’s [noun, not pronoun] meaning gets conveyed, the argument goes, what does it matter whether the words are correctly spelled and sentences properly punctuated? In fact, a recent post on a widely-read career-advice blog argues that grammar (and spelling?) doesn’t much matter.

I’m not buying it. Proper use of the language conveys professionalism and a sense of credibility in things both small and large. You’d not (I pray) show up in sweats and flip flops to shoot a formal wedding, even if you were acknowledged to be the World’s Foremost Wedding Photographer. Doing so would rightly be taken as disdain for the solemnity of the event and for the likely sensibilities of those who hired you.

So too with careless use of the language. Like it or not, people do judge books (the ideas) by their covers (the language that conveys them). Why should anyone take seriously the ideas of someone who can’t be bothered to express them according to the currently-accepted forms in the language in which s/he claims first fluency? Certainly, language usage and spelling evolve naturally over time by broad consensus, but there’s value in doing things the right way, as the “right way” is currently understood. Meanwhile, mis-spellings and careless punctuation convey a sloppiness of mind and habit which can’t help but reflect poorly on the content and clarity of the offender’s thoughts.

Let the commentary begin. Keep it polite, please. And spell correctly if you don’t want me to scarify you with my red pen.

©2009 Michael Sebastian

3 thoughts on “Old-School Curmudgeon Speaks…& Spells

  1. “my fellow photographers, can anyone doubt that they are among the worst spellers and punctuators of anyone claiming to write in English”

    As a proofreader and copyeditor, I can doubt that. Or at least, can name other groups that could give them a run for their money. Academics, for instance. By the time an academic has reached the end of their sentence, they have frequently forgotten what the beginning was about. I’ve encountered many novelists who do not know what to do with a comma. If you have not noticed this, it is only because I (or someone like me) have been there before you. Business writers–well, they just don’t seem to know what words mean at all, and don’t really care how they jumble them together. I could go on. On the one hand, it’s annoying, on the other hand, it’s job security, for me, at least.


  2. 8/17/09
    I hope I already sent this message, but…

    Moopheus, I feel your pain. And I felt some pain of my own at seeing you demonstrate the inconcsistent-number booboo. In the unlikely event that an academic (just one) finishes his or her sentence, it will be his or her (not their) sentence.

    And, Sebastian, per your shooting-a-wedding comparison, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I actually attended a wedding at which the BRIDE AND GROOM wore flipflops– and cargo shorts. Yes, the barbarians have torn the gates from their hinges and are lounging around the ruined altar twittering with Cheeto-greased thumbs. And I alone am left to tell thee!


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