Apostrophe, Where Art Thou? Today's Churches Are Missing the Mark

By McManus, E. Leo | National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Apostrophe, Where Art Thou? Today's Churches Are Missing the Mark


McManus, E. Leo, National Catholic Reporter


Bishop Matthew Harvey Clark of the Rochester, N.Y., Roman Catholic diocese, knows the vertiginous changes that affect the modern church: the dwindling supply of priests, the falling church attendance, the ravages of the sex abuse crisis and the increasing demands for lay ministries.

Just last October he joined the New York State delegation of Catholic bishops, under the leadership of the archbishop of New York, who travel every five years to the Vatican for ad limina (or "to the thresholds of the apostles") visits to report to various church departments on the condition of their dioceses.

At the end of days spent with officials, including a personal meeting with the Holy Father, he found himself, after his prayers, relaxing with Eats, Shoots & Leaves, modestly called by its UK publisher (Profile) "The Runaway #1 British Bestseller" and by its U.S. publisher (Gotham) "The #1 New York Times Bestseller." It is a book on punctuation that, in the words of Bishop Clark, "I never knew ... could be so much fun."

This manual did turn heavenward the thoughts of Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes. If the British author of the punctuation book, Lynne Truss, were a Catholic, McCourt would gladly have nominated her for sainthood, McCourt said. In any case he would call down "blessings on her merry, learned head for the gift of her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves," which takes its title from the delightfully mispunctuated fragment of the description of a Chinese panda.

Of the discrete marks of punctuation (comma, colon, period, hyphen, etc.) considered, perhaps the unruly apostrophe is most relevant to churches.

Ms. Truss has a whole chapter on what she calls "The Tractable Apostrophe," a word from the Greek that means a "turning away": a sign of an omission or elision of letters. But I don't find the apostrophe quite so manageable, docile, yielding or governable as she. I prefer to call it the "wayward apostrophe" because it seems so disorderly and headstrong, appearing at times in the traditional "greengrocer's" form ("apple's for sale") or the hairdresser's ("His and Her's"). Sometimes contractions, which require the apostrophe, are embarrassingly shorn of it altogether.

Even under church auspices, the apostrophe can prove unruly. Last summer an august Jesuit weekly, which shall be nameless, in a most unusual moment of nodding, identified a photo as that of ordinands "at St. Peters' Basilica. …

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