November 29, 2004

No time for an apostrophe

As of this date (my Unix system reports Mon Nov 29 11:12:45 PST 2004), the Time website at has a box advertising the Verbatim (Quotes of the Week) feature with these words:

"Some of you people have been illegal for a long time." — Thomas Menino, Boston mayor, on repeal of a law that imprisoned Indian's inside the city

(The mayor was talking to a group of Indians at a ceremony in which he called for the repeal of the 1675 Indian Imprisonment Act.) Talk about a bad example to present to the young!

Time is highly regarded for its typographical accuracy; there are teams of people who work all day ensuring that no plural noun will sport an apostrophe. But perhaps the website is not so strictly policed. The passage in question also has an HTML error ("&quot" shows up because the data entry person failed to end the code for a double quotation mark with a semicolon); I didn't reproduce that above because it wasn't relevant to anything about English. Language Log will report on how long it takes the apostrophe-catchers, which-hunters, and semicolonoscopists at Time to catch both errors and fix them.

Added later (at Tue Nov 30 08:27:55 PST 2004): O.K., it's the next morning, and Time has now fixed the error (clearly they read Language Log, as they certainly should). But don't let it happen again, Time magazine. Use of apostrophes (unlike syntax) is not a domain in which you get any real dialect variation or judgment differences, and Language Log is not going to offer any defense for such errors. We are not anarchists when it comes to spelling or punctuation of written Standard English. You simply never use an apostrophe to form the plural of an ordinary dictionary word, like Indians. Not ever. Maybe with digits (the 1960's) or special symbols or letters of the alphabet (P's and Q's and @'s), and some acronyms (NGOs looks odd, so people write NGO's); but not with ordinary dictionary words spelled with lower-case letters in them. Yet there is someone on Time's web page staff who does not have this principle etched into their soul. Bad staff member!

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 29, 2004 02:21 PM