Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hell's bells–they're no angels

By Jim Heffernan

Many upstanding, law-abiding, right-thinking, church-going citizens hereabouts (you know, the Duluth-Cloquet-Carlton triangle) are concerned about the rendezvous of Hells Angels this week with headquarters in Carlton.

But, in spite of concerns about possible outbreaks of unruly conduct on the parts of the motorcycle group, I think we can turn this into a learning experience for everyone, especially children and car dealers.

Let me explain. The rogue motorcycle group (you notice I don’t say “gang”) calls itself Hells Angels. That should be Hell’s Angels, as any eighth grade (or earlier) English teacher would point out. That is unless there are other hells we haven’t been told about in the Bible or by Dante and other thinkers, in which case it would be Hells’ Angels.

No, there’s just one as far as I’m concerned, and, I’m sure, any self-respecting Hells Angel would agree.

The Devil you say? Go ahead.

But we were discussing the Hells Angels’ careless misuse (non-use, actually) of the all-important apostrophe. In their case, were the apostrophe properly inserted in Hells, it would read Hell’s on the backs of their black leather vests, a valuable learning experience for our children.

Yes, our children and also automobile dealers who, in their newspaper ads, consistently abuse the use of the apostrophe in spite of my warning them about it in a newspaper column many moons ago. They continue to print things like, “Four Chevy’s in stock” or “Three Jeep’s on sale” or “Buick’s top customer satisfaction.”

As every seventh grader should know, there is no need for an apostrophe when you are merely expressing a plural. It’s Four Chevys, Three Jeeps, Two Buicks and a partridge in a pear tree (in season). Can you imagine the chaos at Christmas time if that most popular of carols, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” included such lines as “four calling bird’s,” “three French hen’s,” “two turtle dove’s,” not to mention “seven swan’s a-swimming.” An abomination for sure.

But you do need an apostrophe when you proclaim yourself an angel of hell. It means you are OF hell; that you represent hell, and maybe even that hell owns you. It is called a possessive, and it is expressed in English with the apostrophe: Hell’s Angel, God’s children (all of whom have got shoes), and so forth.

Speaking of Christmas, I wonder what Hells Angels members do on that most festive of holidays, its theme being “peace on Earth,” and all that. Do they decorate trees? Exchange gifts? Sing carols like “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Oh well, that’s something for anthropologists to study.

Just for the record, the apostrophe is used also to represent a contraction, such is it’s for it is, and it’s important, but how long can I go on without risking the glazing of readers’ (when a plural word ends in s the apostrophe usually follows the s) eyes.

Hell’s bells…it’s time for lunch anyway.


japete said...

Thanks, Jim. Great writing, as usual. We are at our cabin near Cloquet but have had no sightings yet. I hope we don't run into any of those Angel's motorcycles. They scare me!

Jim Heffernan said...

And thank you, Joan. I doubt there's anything much to worry about with the Hells Angels. In pictures they invariably look like middle-aged, heavy set guys who like leather garments and wearing ponytails. I suppose there are a few troublemakers, but probably no more than the proportion in the general population. Glad you caught my blog item -- it was fun.