The title highlights the difference adding simple punctuation makes to a term said of a Giant Panda, that it “eats shoots & leaves”. Add a comma after the first word, and the same bear becomes a postprandial, gun-toting evacuee.
Misuse of most punctuation doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect, but it may signal (to some people, at least) a lack of attention to detail, therefore invites ridicule. None more so than using the prolific Grocer’s Apostrophe.
Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with:
- Those things over there are my husband’s.
(Those things over there belong to my husband.)
- Those things over there are my husbands’.
(Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
- Those things over there are my husbands.
(I'm married to those men over there.)
There’s a simple rule when wondering whether you need to add an apostrophe or not – if in any doubt, just leave it out. Jess Meats circulated a now-dead website a while ago – www.canipluralizethatwithanapostrophe.com. Visiting the site displayed a blank page carrying just the word NO. In 96pt Arial Bold.
If you’re not really sure of the rules or if you find you forget them a bit too easily, check out The Oatmeal’s brilliant graphical guide for when to – and perhaps more importantly, when not to – use an apostrophe. There are other wordsmithery wonders too – how to use a semicolon, some words you need to stop misspelling, who vs whom and more. Genius. And really, really funny too.