Sunday, November 29, 2009

Misused Apostrophes: A Seeing-Thinking-Teaching-Learning Project

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

While driving home from a workshop on integrative learning the other week, I was mulling over the three topics discussed that afternoon — aspects of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Learning Pyramid, typical learning styles of millennials — when my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a bright yellow banner flapping by the side of the road. It was informing everyone that the local flea market was now open on “Sunday’s Only.”

Instead of cringing and wondering for too long about how much less unedited signs might cost, I paused, and then asked myself, “Can anything from that workshop relate to this, if I may, apostrophe disaster?” The answer sparked an idea: I could create a project which both focused on misused apostrophes and utilized the three key topics addressed at the workshop.

After all …

  • Evaluating and creating require high-level thinking skills, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    In the taxonomy, which grades instructional activities by difficulty, evaluating and creating are actually ranked as those which involve the highest-level thinking skills. Tasks which involve interpreting, judging, ranking, scoring, composing, reconstructing, or revising represent activities which typically fall into one of those two categories.

  •  Teaching others is an activity assigned to the top end of the (memory oriented) Learning Pyramid.

    A study done by National Training Laboratories revealed that the retention rate of information is highest (90%) if learners either teach the concept to others or put it to immediate use. In contrast, when learners read from books or other materials, or listen to lectures, that rate drops dramatically to 10% for reading and 5% for listening.

  • And millennials frequently use the internet to study.

    Millennials, those of Generation Y, or simply, people born between 1977 and 1998 are more technologically literate than any generation before them, and they tend to expect learning environments to incorporate the internet.

So here’s . . .  

The Project  

  • Stage 1. Having compiled a set of examples of publicly displayed misused apostrophes, including a number of examples from internet sources as well as the “Sunday’s Only” sign example, I shared the set with students, and asked them to evaluate and to revise them. One of my sources was the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” a gold mine of photographs showing real life examples of such mistakes. Also, a quiz incorporating photos of authentic signs, banners, TV images, T-shirts, etc., most of which need editing work, available at, turned out to be very engaging.  

  • Stage 2. (Un)fortunately, campus reader boards, fliers, and even cafeteria menus can be other sources of specimens. So I asked my students to go on an “apostrophe scavenger hunt” around campus and note examples of problematic apostrophe usage. I gave them the option of working in small teams, and I encouraged them to contact the “authors” and, tactfully, to offer to edit the phrase or sentence and to inform the authors of the rule which was broken (to instruct them).

    One of my students veered off campus and found two apostrophe mistakes on the sign in front of his uncle’s body shop. The student offered to make a new sign for the shop, which pleased his uncle. The student then offered a short explanation for the change, which met with less enthusiasm. 

The students had a great time, and they were perhaps most excited when correcting and teaching native speakers of English a little thing or two about those little marks we call apostrophes.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
November 29, 2009 at 11:19 am

Very interesting!

One of my sources was the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” a gold mine of photographs showing real life examples of such mistakes.

1. Shouldn't "gold" be "golden" as the mine is not really made of gold. Rather you describe as a trasure.

2. I once heard that there was a love letter that if it was puncutated by commas. The very letter was punctutated two times in different places each time. In the first punctuation, the words were flowers. In the second words were daggers!

Can you help me locate that letter?

Comment from Ela Newman
November 29, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Hello Ismael,

Thank you for commenting on my recent blog. I'm glad you found it interesting.

Let me answer your first question. "Gold mine" has its literal meaning (a place where gold is taken out of the ground), but it also has an additional, non-literal meaning: an abundant source of something valuable or desired.

As for your second question, I am not sure if I can be of much help. I haven't heard of the letter that you mentioned, but must admit that the idea sounds really intriguing. Let me know if you locate it somewhere, and I'll try to do some searching myself.

Thanks again for your comment.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
December 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm


Finally I found the link. I hope you find it interesting.

Comment from Ela Newman
December 5, 2009 at 7:42 am

Thank you, Ismael.

Leave a comment on this post