Here are some awesome language lessons

May 1, 2019
By Dale Kovar

In the newspaper business, part of our job is to use language correctly.

I haven’t been able to change the world the way I want, but maybe I can get through to you at least.

Let’s start with the simple things.

Apostrophes: when correctly used, they are for abbreviations or to indicate possession, and in the case of possession, we need to be clear if it’s singular or plural.

Frequent errors are on house signs, as in: Welcome to the Smith’s.

Such usage would indicate the property belongs to just one Smith, so we are left to wonder which Smith. Or if there is only one Smith, why include “the” when Welcome to Smith’s would suffice?

If the intention is plural possession, it would be Welcome to the Smiths’.

Next we get the card with Merry Christmas from the Smith’s.

Of course, this is intended as a plural, not possessive, so it should be Merry Christmas from the Smiths.

So please . . . don’t put apostrophes as decorations in every word that ends in s.

Another common error on apostrophes is with years. If you are talking about the 1990s, there is no need for an apostrophe; it’s simply plural.

If you want to abbreivate it correctly, it’s ‘90s – the apostrophe is in place of what you are leaving out. If you make it 1990’s, then you are actually indicating possession of something that belongs to the year 1990.

Moving on to a higher level: bring/take.

Similar to come/go or here/there, the usage of bring or take is relative to a location and the speaker or writer.

You can take something there or bring it here, but you can’t bring it somewhere else.

That leads us into word usage in general. Over time, it seems some words become more fashionable to use. Years ago, we didn’t talk about a sports venue, or vetting someone who is seeking an important job.

Other words have become popular to the point of being terribly overused and misused – especially awesome.

The dictionary definition is: extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.

That’s much different from the common usage where anything favorable or positive is “awesome.”

For example: “I found a nickel on the sidewalk. That’s awesome!”

Nice, yes. Maybe I just don’t get extremely impressed that easily.

Next up: random.

Does anybody remember the chapter on probability in high school math?

If you draw one card out of a deck, there is a random chance that it will be any particular number or suit.

The dictionary definition has several parts:

1a : lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern

b : made, done, or chosen at random

2a : relating to, having, or being elements or events with definite probability of occurrence

b : being or relating to a set or to an element of a set, each of whose elements has equal probability of occurrence

In the last decade, the word random has become quite popular but very misused.

Example: someone comes up to me and says “I have a random question for you.”

I’m (usually) too polite to correct him or her, but I’m already thinking “No, it’s not a random question; you know exactly what you are going to ask.”

Many times I can’t even figure out why someone is using the word random. It appears to be an attempt at referring to some unknown aspect, but it still comes off sort of like a swear word that is included in a sentence but doesn’t add any meaning to what is being said.

Maybe it’s for emphasis. More likely, it’s just a fun word to say, no matter what it means.

I’m afraid the next word to be popularly overused is epic.

I guess it’s an alternative to awesome – but again it’s frequently used to exaggerate something okay as if it were extraordinary.

Just one more note: I was going to use reaching into a bag of M&Ms as an example of random probability, but that leads into a discussion on whether there should be an apostrophe in M&M’s.

Two inquiries to Mars, Inc., have gone unanswered (they must think I’m a crackpot), so I am left to reason it out myself.

The brand name is clearly spelled with an apostrophe – M&M’s – which refers to founders Mars & Murrie, and in that instance is correctly punctuated as possessive.

On the wrapper – besides the logo which includes an apostrophe – the product is referred to M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies. In television ads, the candy is referred to by the brand name.

Now the dilemma: if a single piece of candy is an M&M, then several pieces of candy would have to be M&Ms – plural but not possessive or an abbreviation, so no apostrophe. Right?

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