I was saddened by the news that Bill Walsh, copy editor at The Washington Post and one of the smartest grammarians around, died yesterday. According to The Washington Post, Walsh’s wife said he died of complications from bile-duct cancer. Walsh was only 55. The news reminded me of the time more than 10 years ago when I was a younger member of the Writer’s Digest staff and I would reach out to him for clarification of certain grammar and style rules. He was always willing to help and quick to respond—and witty about it all as well. Here is one of the posts where I quoted him as my expert. He will be missed.
Contractions With Proper Nouns (Brian’s a baseball Fan)
Q: I recently got into a grammar debate with my wife and would like you to settle things for us once and for all: Can you use contractions with a proper noun (“Jodie’s in charge” instead of “Jodie is in charge”)?—Benjamin W.
A: There are two main reasons to use apostrophes: 1. to form a possessive (Brian’s baseball team wears green) and 2. to replace missing letters (Brian has a baseball jersey that’s [that is] green). But does that replacement rule apply to names, places and things (Brian’s a baseball fan)?
Whether it’s a pronoun, plain noun or proper noun, it is acceptable to tack the apostrophe-s onto the end of nouns to replace “is.” There are no rules against it. In fact, if you search in stylebooks, online grammar sources and the like, there really isn’t any information floating around on this specific use of the apostrophe-s (‘s). So I am hereby declaring this the Klems Rule (after all, I’ve always wanted a grammatical rule named after me).
To make sure something wasn’t slipping past me, I contacted my fellow grammarian Bill Walsh, copy chief at The Washington Post and author of The Elephants of Style (McGraw-Hill) and asked him about this rule.
“If Brian’s a baseball fan, then Brian’s a baseball fan,” Walsh says. “Aside from questions of formality, the only stumbling block might be if your proper noun ends in s—Washington’s a great town, but Paris … Paris just ‘is.'”
Ultimately this is a style issue and you have the choice whether or not to apply it to your writing. If you’re writing something formal, like a white paper or thesis, you probably shouldn’t use it—then again, you probably shouldn’t use any contractions. But if you’re writing an article, short story or book, there’s no reason you can’t. And if someone challenges you, refer him to the Klems Rule.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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