26 February 2014

Pet Peeve: The Dreaded Apostrophe

Pretty much anyone who uses words for a living has pet peeves. Most of mine have to do with the eroding of precision by the common misuse of words with similar meanings -- theory instead of hypothesis, for example, or jealous when the correct word is envious. Mostly I try to just ignore them, or else I'd go crazy with irritation. And besides, I can't stop language from changing. It's sad when precision and nuance is lost, but languages are living things, and common usage changes them.

But when to use an apostrophe, and when not to, is really a super simple thing, and yet it confuses so many people. Apostrophes mean possession, many people think, so they add an apostrophe to its or hers. Shudder.

Actually, the simple truth is: Apostrophes are used for contractions.

That's it. That's all. Apostrophes never pluralize and they never indicate possession. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking. Because there are times when you need to use an apostrophe with a possessive, and times when it might be acceptable to use one with a plural. For the first: it's not because it's a possessive, it's because it's a contraction. And for the second: it might be acceptable, but it isn't correct.

So, the simple rule for apostrophes again: Use an apostrophe only when your word is a contraction.

Before I get to how that works with those pesky possessives that happen to have apostrophes, here's an essay I wrote a million years ago when I was in charge of the About.com Creative Writing for Teens site (as I said last week, it no longer exists, though you may find parts of it archived -- or plagiarized -- here and there on the web).

Which Word: Plurals, Possessives, and Contractions

More Than One

Most nouns are made plural simply by adding s (or es if the word already ends in s or sh). So more than one dog are dogs, one horse plus another horse makes two horses, and you can be in one skirmish or several skirmishes. Then there are the irregular plurals like mouse becoming mice and knife knives, but that doesn't concern us here. The point to remember is that when you add s to make a plural, you add only the s, never apostrophe-s. So dogs is always dogs and never dog's if you're talking about more than one dog.

But That Is Mine

Nouns are made possessive by adding s also. This is why people get confused. But it doesn't have to be confusing if you remember that to make a noun possessive you add apostrophe-s, and not just s all by itself. So to say that a bone belongs to a dog, you say that it is the dog's bone. A horse that belongs to Jonathan is Jonathan's horse. And so on.

But then what do you do if the noun or name ends with s already? There are two possibilities. One is to go ahead and add apostrophe-s after the s that is already there. The other is to just add an apostrophe. So you could say that a car belonging to Seumas is Seumas's car, or that it is Seumas' car. Adding both the apostrophe and the s is generally considered more correct, though either option is acceptable. The same two possibilities are available when making a plural noun possessive. You could say the dogs' bone or the dogs's bone in order to indicate a bone belonging to several dogs. To talk about the house where the Joneses live (more than one person with the last name Jones), you would say the Joneses's house or the Joneses' house. Writers usually use whichever is most like the way someone reading aloud would pronounce it; so a writer would probably write Seumas's car but the dogs' bone and the Joneses' house.

More Apostrophe-ses

Another place you get that old apostrophe-s is when you contract two words into one word (known as a contraction). Contractions don't always involve ses, of course; don't and isn't are contractions. But it's the ses that get confusing. All you need to remember is: in a contraction, the s always stands for another word (usually is, but sometimes other words like us). So that dog is running can become that dog's running and let us go swimming becomes let's go swimming.

Those Pesky Possessive Pronouns

Another source of confusion is possessive pronouns. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns, like me, you, she, it, us and so on. Unlike other nouns, pronouns never use apostrophe-s to become plural; they have their own special plural forms. To show possession, the dog that belongs to me becomes my dog; the dog is mine. So you get the forms me my mine, you your yours, he his his, she her hers, us our ours, it its its. The word its seems to give people the most trouble. The key is this: its is a possessive pronoun (possessive pronouns don't use apostrophes); it's is short for it is.

When Plurals Are Allowed Apostrophes

Now I've already said that plurals never use apostrophes, and I stand by that, but some publications (and web sites) require the use of apostrophes in plural forms in special situations (and only in special situations). Those situations are ones where the s that makes the word plural might be confused with part of the word itself, in acronyms or abbreviations, and with numbers. So some newspapers, for example, specify that you must write how-to's rather than how-tos, CD's instead of CDs, and the 1990's rather than the 1990s. Personally, I think people are smart enough not to need those apostrophes, but if it makes the difference between selling an article and not selling one, I'll put the silly things in.

How To Keep It All Straight

That seems like an awful lot of detail to remember, but it's all logical if you stop to think about it. But to make it a little easier, just remember these rules:

  • Nouns become plural with s or es (unless they're irregular), and never use apostrophes (except in some publications where some words, acronyms/abbreviations and numbers are required to have them).
  • Nouns, including plural nouns (but not pronouns), become possessive with apostrophe-s (or sometimes with just apostrophe).
  • Pronouns have special possessive forms and so do not use apostrophes.
  • Contractions always use apostrophes to indicate that part of the word has been taken out to shorten it.

And that's it. Remember those four points, and you'll always know if you need to say its or it's, the dogs or the dog's.

In the million years since I wrote that article -- which I mostly still agree with -- I learned why it that possessive nouns use apostrophes, and it makes everything so much simpler. I think if they would just teach that one little bit of the history of English in school, a lot of people would never be confused about apostrophes. And if I'd known it when I wrote that article, I could have simplified my final list to:

  • Only contractions use apostrophes.

Because the reason possessive nouns require apostrophes is because they are also contractions.

Once upon a time, in order to make a noun possessive, you have to make it awhile phrase. So to say that George owned this book, you'd write: George, his book. And, as language change, that phrase became one the was more conveniently shortened, contracted to George's book. In other words, George's is a contraction of George, his.

So how come we don't use Emily'r instead of Emily, her? I imagine it's partly because it's unpronounceable, but also because the default gender in the English language has long been male. (I won't say it always was, because there was a time when English -- or that which English evolved from (I don't recall the details and I'm too lazy to look it up) -- had a different set of pronouns).

So there you go. Apostrophes are only used for contractions, and possessives only have apostrophes if they are also contractions.

22 February 2014

Stamp Saturday: Tools

This series is about cutting your own rubber stamps, and I'm planning to test a whole bunch of different materials that are available for that purpose. If you missed the first Stamp Saturday post, which covered all (or most) of the materials I'll be covering, you can find it here.

Because I look at rubber stamping as a type of printmaking (more on that next week, probably), I tend to use a lot of the same tools I use for other relief printmaking processes. In other words, the same tools I use for linocutting.

My earliest rubber stamps, which I cut from white plastic erasers something like fifteen years ago (back in the days when Staedtler still made erasers in an extra-large size), were cut using an X-acto knife. I didn't really know what I was doing, even though I had done a small amount of linocutting before. They turned out surprisingly well, considering how difficult it is to cut efficiently and neatly with a simple knife. I'll have more on how to cut with different tools a few posts from now, so don't worry if all you have is a knife. It's possible to use one much better than I did back then.

These days, while I still keep my X-acto handy for trimming edges, I do most of my cutting with lino tools. When I cut actual lino, I generally use woodcarving tools rather than the tools sold as lino tools. For not that much more money, you can get a decent set of Japanese wood carving tools that will last a lot longer, and which can be easily sharpened with a stone. I got this set from Lee Valley Tools here in Canada. 

They also sell a set with clear acrylic handles that I've heard very good things about, and that I'm tempted to buy as designated stamp cutting tools (I like to keep my tools separate as it cuts down on re-sharpening). I also have a couple of sets of those cheap Speedball lino cutters with replaceable blades that I bought to have as backup when I'm teaching. While they're not that great for actual linocutting -- they dull too quickly and don't re-sharpen as well as real woodcutting tools -- for stamp cutting, they're actually not too bad. Rubber stamp materials aren't nearly as hard as lino, so the tools don't dull as quickly, so once you get them properly sharp, they'll stay that way for a long time.

I do most of my cutting with the small v-gouge, which I find has the best shape for a good, stable cut. The small u-gouge is good if you have a lot of curves to cut (I find the u cuts curves better, though the v is fine, too), but the shape of the cut gives less support to the printing surface. I'll get into that more when I talk about cutting technique, but for now I'll just say that if you only buy a single tool, make it a small v-gouge. Larger tools are good for clearing out large blank areas and cleaning up edges, but the v is best for basic shapes and detail.

If you plan to do a lot of cutting, and get yourself a decent set of tools, you'll probably want to invest in some sharpening tools, too. For frequent use, a strop may be all you need, though it's not something a lot of people aside from woodcarvers have on hand. Lee Valley sells a two-sided strop -- put dressing on one side, and leave the other side clean, and run your tools over it from time to time as you go. Since rubber stamp materials are quite soft, it may be all you ever need if your tools are sharp enough out of the package.

If you're not sure about a strop, or don't think you know how to use one (and they are a little awkward to use on a carving tool when compared to how easy they are to use with a knife), then a fine sharpening stone is your best bet. I have a little stone I got as a gift that has fine on one side and medium on the other, and covers most of my sharpening needs. Chances are, you won't need anything coarser than that for rubber cutting. If you do lino and are hard on your tools, a coarse stone might be a good investment. 

Next week, I'm going to backtrack a bit and write what probably should have been the first post in this series: a sort of introduction and my thoughts on the whys and who cares of rubber stamping. The week after, I'll probably begin on technique.

19 February 2014

Writing Wednesday: Stalled, and Practical Musekeeping

Since I started a (hopefully regular) Saturday post called "Stamp Saturday" I figured why not make Wednesday about writing. Since, you know, "writing" and "Wednesday" both start with "w."Or something. Plus, some people come here to read about writing, and some about art/craft, and some about whatever else happens to fall out of my brain. So on Wednesdays, I'll try to say something meaningful about writing.

So. I haven't been writing much lately, except for necessary work things. My fiction writing has been completely stalled. Why? I don't know. I don't actually believe in writer's block; I know all I really need to do is sit down and start typing. But I haven't. Fear, maybe? Loss of enthusiasm because nobody has noticed that I've written anything? Maybe, and maybe. Or maybe it's because I'm a little contrary by nature (subtly -- most people would probably find me accommodating rather than contrary) and the more I berate myself for not writing, the less likely I am to write.

But not writing does weird things to my brain. I feel strange and wrong in ways I can't really describe, and which don't really have a source. Except I only feel this way when I'm not writing. So I obviously need to get writing again. And I find myself remembering an article I wrote a million years ago, when I was in charge of the Creative Writing for Teens website at About.com (don't go looking for it; it no longer exists and you'll be redirected to the Fiction Writing site). I re-published it more recently on one of those content sites (Suite 101 maybe? Associated Content? I can't remember) when I was trying to see if I could get more writing work (I concluded those sites aren't really worth the effort). Apparently, it got picked up by "Yahoo Voices" which I have apparently been part of since 2009, though I don't recall signing up. I might have done, and forgotten. It's the sort of thing I would do. More likely, Yahoo bought out whichever content site it was I had written it for, and transferred me and some of my content over. Anyway, here is "Practical Musekeeping" which may or may not help with writer's block…

Practical Musekeeping

The Role of Inspiration in Writing

You've heard the old saying that something is "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration" (or, as Marion Zimmer Bradley put it, "ten percent inspiration or talent, and ninety percent hard work"). It's true for writing, too, but that isn't to say that inspiration -- the Muse -- has no role in writing.

Getting inspiration, finding your Muse, is important, but it's even more important to know that you can't just sit around waiting for a Muse to show up. Muses aren't interested in writers who sit around not writing, Muses are interested in working writers, writers struggling to find the words to express their own vision of the world. Become one of those writers and soon enough you'll have a Muse whispering story ideas and perfect phrases into your ear as you write.

Feeding the Muse

As Ray Bradbury pointed out, it is necessary to offer a Muse sustenance before you can expect one to come to you.

It may seem a little silly to feed something you haven't got yet, but it works. If you really are meant to be a creative writer, you've probably already got a Muse hanging around, waiting for an invitation. Offer her something tasty and she may just let you see her.

So what do you feed a Muse? All sorts of things, really, but primarily experience. But before you get dismayed, thinking you're young and haven't got much experience to offer, you should know that experience comes in many forms. You're alive, so you've had experience. You've felt things, done things and learned things. And you've read things.

To provide your Muse with plenty to eat, go places and do things, but most of all, read. Read everything. Read poetry (even if you think you don't like poetry; sometimes you have to do things because they are good for you). Read non-fiction; that's where odd ideas come from. Read fiction. Read in and outside your genre. Read classic literature (it's good for you). Read junk (it's tasty). All these things will be filtered through your own perceptions to feed your Muse.

Enticing Your Muse

Once you've attracted a Muse (or discovered one you already had), you'll need to get her to come out and play now and then, to help you with your writing (exercise is very good for Muses). To do this you must sit down and get to work. Write something, anything. Don't wait for the Muse to tap you on the shoulder and tell you to get working; Muses are basically lazy and won't bother very often. But once you're stringing words together, your Muse will get curious. She'll think, "There's a better way to say that," and then she'll come out and tell you what it is.

Remember also that Muses are shy, so don't try to force her out. Just go about writing that poem or story, and let her venture out on her own. She will, and the more often you entice her out, the more easily she'll arrive next time.

Do Not Neglect Your Muse

The worst thing possible for a Muse is neglect. If you ignore her by ignoring your writing, she'll go away and it can be very difficult to get her to come back (not impossible, though). If you don't keep feeding her with new experiences and new things to read, she'll begin to repeat herself and you find you write the same boring stuff over and over. Be attentive to your Muse, fulfill her needs and she'll help you with your writing for the rest of your life.

Further Reading on Musekeeping

If you don't feel quite ready to accept the responsibility for keeping your own Muse, try reading some of these fine publications. You can never have too much information, though Musekeeping is really quite a simple and natural process.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Books, 1990) contains the very useful essay "How to Keep and Feed a Muse (and was the main inspiration for my article). "It isn't easy," Bradbury writes. "Nobody has ever done it consistently. Those who try hardest, scare it off into the woods."

"Waiting for Inspiration?" Ha! is a short but useful commentary on Inspiration (another name for the Muse) by Beth Mende Conny. (Note: this used to be available online, but I can't find it anymore. If anyone finds a link, please send it along and I'll update.)

15 February 2014

Stamp Saturday: Materials

I'm going to try adding a second weekly post here. We'll see how I can keep up with it. Stamp Saturday is going to be notes and thoughts on a project I'm working on, to write a book on carving your own rubber stamps. It came about because I was looking to buy such a book, and the only ones I could find were either out of print (and fetching ridiculous prices on the collector's market), or had only small sections about how to make the stamps with the rest of the book taken up by projects.

There are, I think, plenty of great books already for people who want ideas of what to make once they have some stamps (and you can make the same projects with store bought stamps as you can with hand-carved ones) -- I'm more interested in the technical details of creating my own designs. So I'm going to be doing a lot of testing and experimenting, which will be the raw material for a book to share what I learn.

To get started, I pretty much ordered one of every kind of material that seemed suitable from Dick Blick Art Materials (because they have a pretty good selection, and decent prices/shipping). And I had a few things already on hand (one of which, I just realized, I left out of my photo).

The list so far:

  • Blick EZ Cut
  • Speedball Speedy Carve
  • Moo Carve
  • Inovart Eco Karve
  • Inovart Smooth Cut
  • Richeson Clear Carve Linoleum
  • Speedball Speedy Cut Easy
  • Soft Kut
  • Speedball Speedy Cut
  • white plastic eraser
  • black rubber mat

The black rubber mat is actually sold as a non-slip surface protector for cutting lino on, but I thought I'd try cutting it as a stamp just to see how it would work. It looks like there may be a few new things at Blick that they didn't have when I ordered, so I'll probably update the list eventually.

What I will not be using (though I use it for printmaking) is linoleum. It makes an excellent relief printing surface, and I love working with it, but it's not nearly soft enough for rubber stamping. (And the Richeson Clear Carve in the list above, while called "linoleum," isn't really, so I'm going to try it). I'm also not going to use foam printing elements because while they're fun, they're too soft to produce good results, and don't stand up to heavy use.

My initial tests will simply be how well these materials cut. Then I'll compare how well they take ink (and what kinds of ink), and how well they print when used as a rubber stamp (rather than in a press like a printing plate). I'll also try them with and without a layer of foam (it adds give and can make harder materials print better in some cases).

Over time, I'll keep track of how well the materials last, and I may save some of the bits trimmed off so I can try leaving them out in the sun, leaving them in a damp area, and that sort of thing.

12 February 2014

Crow Snow Angel and Ice Eagle

I start teaching my Introduction to Letterpress class today, so all I have for you this week is a couple more photos of bird-realted things. Maybe I'll remember to take some pictures of my class this time around, and share them here.

Here's a thing I call a "crow angel," which is a snow angel made by a crow landing. Other birds make them too, of course, but the crow ones are the easiest to photograph (not that this is the best photo). This was in my front yard, near where I put seeds out every morning.

And here's a very very blurry image shot out the window of a moving 18-wheeler on the Pictou causeway. In case you can't tell, it's a bald eagle on the ice. It was really far away, so I couldn't tell what it was doing. Eating, probably.

05 February 2014


We get plenty of visitors to our house, year round, because I put out seeds every morning, and I try to keep a suet feeder filled in the winter (once the squirrels discover it, it empties fast). Here are a few of the most recent birds, from the past week.

A female Downy Woodpecker. These little birds are not shy about telling me when the feeder is empty or someone else is eating from it. They're quite talkative.

A couple of shots of Dark-Eyed Juncos. There are juncos where I lived in BC, too, but they had brown bodies and black heads, instead of the solid slate grey that NS birds have. Either way, they're terribly cute. These guys won't eat from a feeder, but are happy to take seeds from the ground, and really like it when the jays get into the suet, because they drop a lot on the ground.

For a few minutes, a male Hairy Woodpecker condescended to share the suet with a Blue Jay. It didn't last long, though, before the woodpecker chased the jay away. They're pretty close in size, but our jays tend to be a bit skittish, and even the Mourning Doves can chase them off.