Punctuation Exchange Program

by Dave


Pistons pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)


Pistons’ pick Singler to play in Spain (AP)


The AP has done it again.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m as big a fan of the Associated Press as anyone. But when grammatical errors (or typos, perhaps [to be fair]) derail a perfectly good headline, changes need to be made, says I. Drastic changes. Changes that could, say, lead to the hiring of a heretofore unknown blogger as headline editor…?

Okay, maybe not. But let’s take a look at the problem sentence.

I will admit that I get most of my news from My Yahoo! (or most of the news that hasn’t been filtered through the people I follow on Twitter, or my friends on Facebook). For me, it’s certainly the first place I go for NBA news. So imagine my surprise when I open up my page and see this headline:

A headline from Yahoo! news.

“Why would the Pistons send a rookie to play in Spain?!” I thought. But then, taken aback by my own thought, I thought anew, “Wait… Why would the Pistons be sending any players to play in Spain? Is there some sort of international tournament where each NBA team sends a single player? No, that’s stupid. Is there some sort of exchange program going on? No, that’s even stupider.” Finally, curious and out of ideas, I clicked on the article and read it, and figured it all out.

At the time, the NBA had locked out its players, and many players—rookies included—were seeking employment overseas. When the lockout ended, most came back. Pistons’ rookie Kyle Singler, though, did not, electing to remain in Spain, where he had played during the lockout. So what the headline was actually saying was that the player that the Pistons had selected early in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft was going to play in Spain, rather than the NBA.

Now, I may be a curmudgeon, but the interpretation I described above was my very first interpretation that popped into my head after I’d read the headline, and it gave rise to confusion. I didn’t go looking for this fight: It found me!

Since the actual meaning is recoverable, though (after all, both sentences sound the same), one might wonder, what’s the big deal? Why do we need an apostrophe there? Well, actually, we don’t need an apostrophe there. But, at the same time, there must be an apostrophe there. Let me explain.

In English, there’s no phonological difference between “Pistons pick Singler” and “Pistons’ pick Singler”. In English orthography, though, we have a convention of placing an apostrophe after a plural noun to indicate that it possesses the next noun—and even though we can get by without it (and many do), it’s a fairly well-known convention. Because of that, its absence may give rise to ambiguity in an otherwise unambiguous sentence. That is, the very fact that it can be there means that if it’s not there when it “should” be, its absence could very well cause our brains to explode.

We wouldn’t have this problem if we did like German does (for the most part) and got rid of our lousy apostrophes. Consider the following comparison between German and English:

  • Peters Auto “Peter’s car”

Look at that! Possession without an apostrophe. Why do we even need the apostrophe in “Peter’s car”?! “Peters car” is just fine!

Alas… I fear we’re stuck with our apostrophes, be they genitive, contractive, or distractive. So keep using them, whether you like them or not. It will help those of us who continue to misread headlines that should be interpretable with or without a correctly-placed apostrophe.

On the other hand, if you want to make sure I actually click on a link…