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Obsessive about possessive's? Youve got company

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A misplaced apostrophe at The Heights Bar and Grill in Upper Manhattan. (Photo by James Yolles/CNS)

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John Richards, founder and chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society in Boston, England. "The English language is deteriorating. I'm sure of it," he said. (Photo courtesy of John Richards)

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Erroneous signs in the Jockeys' Room at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. (Photo by James Yolles/CNS)

The Heights Bar and Grill in Upper Manhattan proudly serves “Frozen Margarita’s.” A painted sign in the Jockeys’ Room at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens boldly instructs the “Jockey’s.” A billboard at the Lucky Kids clothing store in SoHo advises shoppers that “sale item’s not included.” And a flyer informing students at Columbia University about a time management seminar offers to help students “pinpoint the problem and address its’ solutions.”

Nearly everywhere in New York City—and much of the English-speaking world, for that matter—there are notices, presumably proofread, with incorrect apostrophe use that leave many customers bewildered, annoyed or looking for another place to shop.

“It says: this company’s so dumb that it pays to display its ignorance,” said Patricia O’Conner, author of the grammar book “Woe Is I” and editor of Grammarphobia.com. “These places might not realize it, but there are enough people out there that know it’s wrong—and it annoys them.”

At a time when the failing economy is at the forefront of many people’s minds, few stop to consider this particular point of grammar—an apostrophe, after all, is only a speck of ink that looks suspiciously like a misplaced comma. But for many, and not just grammarians and copy editors, the value and necessity of a properly placed apostrophe reflects a commitment to rules and structure: The proper use of plurals (which almost never have apostrophes) and when to use an apostrophe in “its” (only when it’s a contraction of it is). Take away apostrophes, they say, and we’re left with anarchy. One can only imagine the horrific image: thousands of out-of-work copy editors and grammarians roaming the streets brandishing large red pens.

“I can say, judging from my e-mails and letters, it’s not an insignificant issue,” said Philip Corbett, a deputy editor at The New York Times who also oversees the paper’s style manual. “There are definitely a number of people out there that care intensely about that sort of thing. People are very sensitive about it.”

And those people might be incensed to find out that some of the main traffickers of the misplaced apostrophe—sign makers—don’t really care.

“That just sounds like a really boring idea for a story,” said Glenn Kushner, a co- owner of Sign-A-Rama in Manhattan. “We check for spelling, but I don’t think anyone would care about that. It’s just not an issue.”

But there was even disagreement within Sign-A-Rama itself, as a co-worker piped in.

“In the sign business we call it the grocer’s apostrophe,” said Jordan, a salesman at Sign-A-Rama who preferred not to give his last name. “Or maybe it should be called grocers’. The shops that produce these signs are like baby pigeons— they’re out there everywhere, but you can never find them.”

A stroll around New York reveals that many more share Kushner’s opinion than Jordan’s. Errors are everywhere.

“I can only conclude that they didn’t learn it in school,” O’Conner said. “I think many teachers don’t know the rules, either.”

Similar complaints from grade school parents have reached John Richards, the 84-year-old founder and chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society in Boston, a town on the East coast of England. The organization’s motto is “The little apostrophe deserves our protection. It is indeed a threatened species!”

Many parents have to correct the teachers, Richards said. “The English language is deteriorating. I’m sure of it.”

Indeed, even entire municipalities seem not to care anymore.

When the City Council in Birmingham, England, announced in January that it would remove all apostrophes from street signs to save costs, Richards was furious.

“If they want to be consistent, they should leave them all in place,” he said. “It’s quite defeatist. And without the apostrophes, they’re meaningless.”

For O’Conner, simply spelling her name over the phone is difficult.

“I say ‘O-apostrophe-capital C-O-N-N-E-R’ and usually the person says ‘what was that second letter?’ I tell them and they say ‘Oh, like a quotation mark?’ They don’t even know what it is.”

Richards remains determined to correct the errors. He is actively lobbying the Birmingham Council to reconsider its decision and recently got a large Boston department store to change its signs.

But not all his efforts pay off.

A restaurant down the street from his home advertises that venerable staple of British cuisine: “pea’s”.

“I decided to approach the owner,” Richards said. “When I told him, he said ‘Well I think it looks better with it.”

Richards, however, did not want to give pea’s a chance.

E-mail: jwy2103@columbia.edu