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City Lights: Apostrophe reformers back. Period

City Lights: Apostrophe reformers back. Period

Roy Paul Nelson and John Benneth, two Oregon retirees, founded the American Apostrophe Association two years ago in hopes of persuading Albertsons Inc. to change its name back to Albertson's Inc.

Sadly, they failed. The good news is that they are considering further endeavors in the same vein. Nelson, 79, would like to fight for the inclusion of a comma before "and" in a series, as in "red, white, and blue," while Benneth, 78, looks forward to crusading on behalf of the distinction between "lie" and "lay."

"Nobody lies down anymore," Benneth said, his voice betraying a touch of irritability. "Everybody lays down. Poor old 'lie' is virtually driven from the English language."

Nelson is a former professor in the University of Oregon's journalism department. Benneth retired as a spokesman for the American Forest Council. They have known each other since their high school days in Portland, when they were both cartoonists, and they are united now by their devotion to the proper use of English.

"Words are tools of communication and we both believe in using the right tool in the right way," Benneth said.Reaching the masses I called Nelson and Benneth after reading about their apostrophic campaign in an Associated Press story. Their failed attempt to apostrophize Albertsons was already over for nearly two years when their association came to much wider attention, thanks to an interview with Nelson and Benneth broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. this summer.

Since then, Nelson said, they've been flooded with interview requests and calls of support.

"It seems to me that there's a raw nerve out there … about language in general and apostrophes in particular," Benneth said.

Still, I had to wonder. With so many ungrammatical atrocities to choose from - just think of how many people use apostrophes to form a plural, as in "a dozen egg's" - why pick on Albertsons?

"Because it was there," Nelson answered. "It's like a mountain to climb."

"There" was right across the parking lot from where Nelson and Benneth regularly meet to drink coffee at a McDonald's in Tigard, Ore., a suburb of Portland. They noticed that the Albertsons store across the way had dropped the apostrophe, so they formed the American Apostrophe Association on the spot.

Benneth fired off a letter to Albertsons headquarters in Boise, Idaho, writing in what Nelson described as an "archaic fake formalism."

"We here at the American Apostrophe Association are dedicated to upholding the grand heritage of the English language and, most particularly, the correct deployment of that distinctive mark of proper usage, the apostrophe," Benneth wrote.No exceptions He went on to say: "If it is your intent to represent the name of your founder, Joe Albertson, there should of course be no final 'S.' Alternatively, if the intent is the possessive wording - Albertson's store - it then follows that an apostrophe must be used. No exception is permitted."

Nelson and Benneth wrote several more letters before receiving a reply, and when it came it was from a company lawyer, not the public relations department.

"We thought maybe they were going to hit us for apostrophe harassment," Nelson said.

But company lawyer Bill Carter did something unexpected. He met Nelson and Benneth on their own ground, marshaling bookish arguments and replying in language whose elegance matched theirs.

"Though I am loath to be the bearer of bad news," he wrote, "there is evidence that the grammarians who originally inserted the apostrophe into possessives did so in error. Our ancestors used to write 'Johns hat' meaning 'the hat of John' without the slightest ambiguity. However, during the Renaissance, certain scholars decided that the simple 's' of possession must have been formed out of a contraction of the more 'proper' 'John his hat.' Since in English we mark contractions with an apostrophe, they did so and today 'John's hat' would be considered proper by some."

Nelson wrote the next letter, saying members of the association had been devastated by Carter's arguments. "Mr. Benneth," he added, "has gone into seclusion, leaving it to me to respond to your findings."

"While some of us do not fully understand all that 'John his hat' business, you make a convincing case for maintaining your store name as it stands, and so you will hear no more from us on this matter," he wrote.

Nelson and Benneth, thankfully, did write additional letters, and they also went back on their intention of disbanding the association. Now, energized by all the support they've received, they are on the lookout for a new quest.

"We'll have to drink some coffee and see what we come up with next," Benneth said. Ed Kemmick can be reached at 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com

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