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The mark of scorn

You will excuse me for not getting exercised over the decision by Waterstone’s the British bookseller, to drop the apostrophe from its name.* The Apostrophe Protection Society appears to have its knickers in a twist, as it has in the past over Harrods. Not me.

The society has its work cut out for it. The semicolon has its defenders, and needs them, because that punctuation mark appears to inspire dislike or unease. The lowly comma—It’s a pause mark! It’s a syntax mark! It’s both!—falls into the hands of undergraduates who think they can make texts error-free with promiscuous comma insertion. But the apostrophe has more trouble and causes more trouble than any other feature of punctuation.

Its dual functions, indicating possession and elision, get entangled. You can make letters plural—all A’s—and numbers (in some stylebooks)—1980’s—but if you make nouns plural you get the scorned greengrocer’s apostrophe—melon’s. If you make proper nouns plural—the Smith’s—you demonstrate past inattention in English class.

It often drops out of place names—the Fell’s Point/Fells Point thing in Baltimore gives rise to the occasional kerfuffle—and appears inconsistently in maps and signage.

Of all the errors, the most common is the it’s/its blunder—It’s just a spelling mistake! It’s an illiteracy! It’s more than the one and less than the other—catches everyone who writes, because it takes very little for the wrong neuron to fire.

The reason, David Crystal explains in a link provided by Stan Carey,** is that the apostrophe is relatively new to English, its uses were only codified in the nineteenth century, and people have had trouble applying it from the start to the present.

It is a mess and a muddle, and eliminating all the inconsistencies is a doomed venture.

Therefore, little ones, here’s some advice from Mr. John.

Don’t obsess about Waterstones and Harrods and other commercial ventures that may or may not use the apostrophe. Branding is its own little world. Spare yourself stress by not fretting over signage and menus and the other public places where the apostrophe has been omitted or improperly inserted. It’s not your business, and you couldn’t fix it all anyhow.

Put your head down and make sure you know what you’re doing in your own writing. Watch out for the it’s/its error, because you know you’re going to make it sooner or later. Check whatever style guide you use to find out when you want to make plurals with the apostrophe and stick to it. Other people’s results may vary. That’s all right. You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden.


*Stan Carey has a sensible post about this matter at Sentence First, with links. If you are not regularly reading Mr. Carey’s thoughtful posts on language, you are missing the good stuff.

**Didn’t I already tell you to go to Stan Carey’s blog?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (24)


Nice piece. The only thing that disturbed me to the point of nausea was your use of 'kerfuffle,' something more associated with the ultimate American pinhead, Geo. Will. Shame on you, mon ami!

It's actually a medical condition. MD's call it apostrophever, even Md.'s.

Yo Evan,

Is that "apostrophever" anything like that other medical condition called 'Beiberfever' * that afflicts hordes of fawning tween-age girls? Symptoms include---uncontrolled bouts of screaming, then convulsive weeping spells, racing heart beat, profuse sweating, flailing of limbs, swooning.

The only seeming sure-fire cure being....... the inevitable onset of ADULTHOOD.

*As a true-blue Canuck, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that this teen super-star pop culture phenom is 'one of us'. When Justin Beiber's name first hit the media airwaves I thought they were saying Beaver, which for a young Canadian lad just hitting the big-time would have been, ironically, quite appropriate. We Canadians love our frisky beavers, w/ moose and loons coming in at a dead-heat for second place in our affections.

I apologize for the silliness. It WILL happen again. HA!



Hmm........serves me right for trying to be a smart Aleck in that last post.

I went and transposed the adjoining "i" and "e" in that young tween pop idol's last name.

it should read Bieber, not "Beiber", as I incorrectly typed it.

What was that old usage dictum............ "i" before "e" except after "c"? Clearly that one eluded me.

Blame it on the beaver.


English was here before George Will, and it will be here after George Will. I'm not ceding any words to him.

Want of an apostrophe created a kerfuffle on the Outer Banks of North Carolina a while back when a tavern called Dirty Dicks opened in Nags Head. It survives as Dirty Dick's after reams of free publicity from pulpits and politicians

I have to harken back to a particularly hilarious episode of an early "Seinfeld" ("The Sniffing Accountant"), where the Elaine Benes character is working as a lower-rung editor at Pendant Publishing, and she submits a supposed final edited manuscript of a work of fiction by a rather obscure, fledgling author, Jake Jarmel, to her boss, Mr. Lippman.

(As I vaguely recall, Elaine might have been dating this guy, Jake Jarmel, off and on, throughout the series.)

After an earlier thorough reading of he Jarmel manuscript, Lippman is puzzled, and perplexed by the seeming superfluity of "exclamation points" in the piece, and calls Elaine into his office to give him a reasonable explanation of what, pray-tell, she was thinking w/ all the seemingly gratuitous exclamation marks.

Well, here's the actual dialogue, from the original "Seinfeld' script, between Elaine and Mr. Lippman re/ the sticky issue at hand:

*Pendant publishing. Elaine is at Lippman's office.*

Elaine: You wanted to see me, Mr. Lippman?

Lippman: I was just going over the Jake Jarmel book and I understand you worked with him very closely.

Elaine: Yes, krhm, yes I did.

Lippman: And, anyway I was just reading your final edit, um, there seems to be an inordinate number of exclamation points.

Elaine: Well, I felt that the writing lacked certain emotion and intensity.

Lippman: Oh, "It was damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!"

Elaine: Right, well...

Lippman: You put exclamation point after sweatshirt?

Elaine: That's that's correct, I-I felt that the character doesn't like to be ch-ch-chilly...

Lippman: I see, "I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark bar didn't come out!" Exclamation point?

Elaine: Well, yeah, you know how frustrating that can be when you keep putting quarters and quarters in to machine and then *prrt* nothing comes out...

Lippman: Get rid of the exclamation points...

Elaine: Ok, ok ok ...

Lippman: I hate exclamation points...

Elaine: ...ok I'll just....
Elaine, somehow feeling the Jarmel narrative lacked emotional gravitas and "intensity", clearly opted to elevate (in her addled mind) the tone of the piece by merely affixing exclamation "points" to almost every sentence........... even the most prosaic, neutral descriptive, merely passages, as was evident in the quoted script segment, above.

Clearly this bit w/ Elaine was an exaggerated, satirical instance of where one can get carried away w/ indiscriminate use of punctuation---- be it serial commas, semi-colons, dashes.......... or in Ms. Benes' case, exclamation "points".!!!!!!!!!!

As boss Lippman pointed out w/ righteous pique, "I hate exclamation points".

I'm outta here !!!!!!


Anal retentive Nitpicky Alexo is back in town!


In my last post, toward the end, that SHOULD have read, "...... even the most prosaic, merely descriptive passages,.........". I inadvertently merely misplaced my "merely", w/ my erroneous "merely passages" not making a whole lot of sense. My bad.

And I go and accuse others of being too picky? Mercy.

Speaking of "picky', where's our blogger Picky from London's-fair-city-where-the-gals-are-all-pretty been, of late. Surely not picking cockles, and mussels......... alive-alive-ho?

I'm suspect the Sun's %$&#@*$ pay-wall online subscription thingy is cramping his usual gung-ho style.

Hang in there Picky, old lad. Don't despair. You will always be with us You Don't Sayer regulars in spirit, if not in frequent voice.

I , for one really miss your full participation, and IMHO your profound absence (well thankfully not completely) has left a huge void in the vibrancy, learned tenor, and fun humor of this discussion forum, of late.

Can't wait for the Summer Olympics later this year in London. It will be a crazy scene for you folks, I imagine. But a great showcase to the world, nonetheless, for your proud town.

Picky, my friend, I hope the New Year has treated you & yours very well, thus far.



Thank you, Alex, and likewise to you. As it happens the girls are pretty here: no doubt not as pretty as in Dublin, but pretty enough to warm the cockles (the muscles gave up long ago).

I hope the Olympics go well, although I bridle slightly at the suggestion that the world's greatest city needs a showcase (exclamation point).

As to Waterstones I care not a fig. Long given up worrying about apostrophes in company names. Would happily wave goodbye to possessive apostrophes anyway. Much more angered by the way ancient and meaningful company names (Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, for instance) were washed down the pan because some idiot in marketing thought they needed modernising (it's now the history-free GKN).

Waterstones has kept alive the idea that a town centre needs a bookshop. For that I'd forgive them much. In fact I would be happy if they'd swallow Amazon (or hold it to ransom – end of pun).


Auk laddie!

I appear to have blown that one, too. Drats!

Of course, it's Dublin's fair city, and sweet Molly Malone is the fairest of the fair there. (Doh!)

For some reason, (likely a senior momentary brain fart), I managed to erroneously attach your fair city of London to that once popular ancient irish ditty, figuring cockles and mussels were a regular staple of ye olde Billingsgate Fish Market in East London, as well as with the itinerant street-cart fish vendors of yesteryear. (Guess I was conjuring up romantic notions of Sir Michael Caines' old dad, the fishmonger, selling his seafood wares on the streets of London town?)

Picky I got a chuckle out of your bit about "the muscles" having given up long ago. As long as the cockles are still responsive, then you know there's still some life in the old libido, right? HA!

Frankly, I don't reckon either Wales, Scotland, Ireland, or jolly England really has a firm lock on the prettiest lassies in the land. To me, they all can boast their fair share of beautiful gals. For us 'foreigners' to your U.K. shores, their wonderful native, regional accents just adds to their innate charm, and physical/ aesthetic attributes. Well that's my take, at any rate.

Having only ventured to Scotland way back in the summer of 1996, and no where else on British soil (Does Heathrow airport count? HA!), maybe I should not be so quick to judge; even though I'm generally smitten by most of the British women I've met in my travels, as well as here on this side of The Pond.

Agreed, I may well have been slightly glib, and insensitive w/ my earlier "showcase" of London remark. It's indeed true that London hardly needs some grandiose introduction to the rest of the globe, considering its long and storied history, the famous townsfolk it has nurtured, and I dare say, inspired, over the centuries; in addition to just its basic stateliness, vitality, air of grandeur and permanence of this great, and venerable metropolis.

I guess we Americans (and I include myself, as a Canadian), tend to forget how very young our New World nations, and hence our major cities, really are, relative to the long-established 'civilized' countries of continental Europe and Great Britain.

Yet we have this disturbing trend in America where we are tearing down many of our most historic buildings, to make way for new-and-improved, more modern structures. Thankfully, most large cities here in the States have proactive historical/ preservationist societies that attempt to maintain and retain what's still extant, but the 'progressives', and iconoclasts are a constant thorn in their sides.

I assume, at least, that you Londoners have a long-abiding reverence for your old brick-and-mortar, marble, and sandstone historic institutions, and monuments, and tend to conserve and maintain them if at all possible.

Of course the severe, and vast destruction of your city during World War II w/ the serial aerial bombardment from the German Blitz forced Londoners to start rebuilding from square one, in order to bring the town back to a semblance of its pre-war glory. A formidable task, but one that you Brits took in stride w/ that characteristic stubborn and determined British resolve, bolstered, i believe by a Great Depression-honed communal, cooperative work ethic.

So we can put that 'showcasing' bit to rest, old chap.

Picky, as to the plight of brick-and-mortar book shops in this day-and- age of massive, and exponentially increasing online (book) commerce w/ Amazon and their ilk, there is at least a modicum of consolation in seeing some survive in our malls, or as you call them in the U.K., town centers.

We here in the major cities in the U.S. (and perhaps to a greater degree in smaller towns) are witnessing the disturbing phenomenon of established, once thriving book shops starting to go under and close at an astonishingly rapid rate; particularly say in the last five years.

Once a cultural hub, and familiar communal gathering spot for many neighborhood communities, these independently-run book emporia, some having been in business for half-a-century, or more, several family owned and operated, can no longer compete on the now grossly uneven playing field that has emerged w/ the hegemony of the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles of this fast changing world increasingly dominated by e-commerce.

So many of these once-thriving businesses have been forced by the sheer economics of their situation to close shop for good, or as a few local holdout shops here have done, shift over to more online, as opposed to off-the-street walk-in sales.

Thankfully, here in L.A. a smattering of specialty book shops have hung in there. For instance a few popular stores focused strictly on mystery novels have survived, as well as some shops specializing in 'ethnic' fare------ a noted bookstore in East L.A.'s largely Latino/ Mexican-American district carry mostly Latin subject matter and Spanish language works; and another in Leimert Park, South Los Angeles' African-American community's recognized cultural mecca, concentrating its inventory on all-things African and African-American in both the literary and artist realm.

But even these few still-surviving niche-type book stores are suffering from the dramatic impact of rampant online book buying, and they too realize that their days may be numbered. It's all very sad. (Our world is becoming, in so many ways, so homogenized, and corporatized. UGH!)

Well Picky my friend, it was so good to hear from you today, and as usual you forced me to think, and you made me laugh. I thank you for that, and am heartened that you are doing well, all things considered.

I rambled on, as is my wont. So my New Year's resolution to "keep it short' has clearly gone by the wayside.

Picky, keep those cockles warm, old lad.



P.S.: ------Off to San Francisco for a few days w/ my girlfriend. Very exciting. Lots to see, and places to explore. A short sojourn there, but we'll make the most of it.

I don't correct anybody who mistakes these, but there are no apostrophes in Fells Point, Tysons Corner, or Howards End.

Regarding kerfuffle. English also preceded and will also succeed Bill Maher.

I'm not Catholic. Anybody know whether Dr King, for whom this day is observed, is still slated for sainthood? I heard.

Anti-hero Nitpicky Alexo springs back into action!

That should have read "Latino", not "Latin" in my reference to the surviving Spanish-language book shops in East L.A. .

Hmm....... somehow I strongly doubt a book shop specializing in classic "Latin" tomes could make a go of it these days, particularly in East L.A. Just sayin'.

However, if someone ever takes that chance, I think The Forum Book Shoppe might be an appropriate name. I was initially thinking of The Agora, but that's a Greek term. Oh well.


Ho, though Alex, ho! The "showcase" stuff was not totally serious!

And as for LA bookstores, I know about them. I've read The Big Sleep.

And no, Heathrow doesn't count as Britain, or indeed anywhere this side of hell.

Happy New Year!

Only slightly anonymous. More pseudonymous.


I could be off base here, but I seem to detect a slight taint of sarcasm in your query re/ future sainthood for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Hmm..... I don't seem to recall any documented, or officially Holy See-corroborated miraculous acts performed by the late Dr. King Jr. (direct, or indirectly inspired), in his relatively short lifetime. So technically speaking, a future designation of sainthood would be highly unlikely, if not virtually impossible.

Drats! Those dang required miracles seem to always complicate this whole sainthood ordination scenario. I gather at least two confirmed ones in the lifetime of a particular righteous lay candidate, or an exemplary man (or woman) of the cloth, is needed before one is officially considered, and ultimately declared a full-fledged saint--- joining the exalted pantheon of Catholic saints gone by.

Some might argue, w/ some merit, that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his unintended martyrdom to the cause of securing freedom and basic civil rights for all---particularly his long-oppressed and beaten down black brethren---surely justifies the mantel of Sainthood be bestowed upon this Old Testament prophet-like, history, and consciousness-changing transformative figure.

Yet as time and historical 'research' has borne out, Dr. King was far from an exemplary soul, and displayed many of the same human failings, and character flaws of the most common amongst us. His alleged infidelities, sadly, were often flaunted in the media, generally by those parties who wished to denigrate the man and his lofty mission.

But IMHO, this was an extraordinary human being who evinced inordinate courage, determined resolve, intelligence, political savvy, faith in the Almighty, and faith in the unflagging human spirit to endure-----if one keeps one's eye on the ultimate prize........ no matter what.

Dr. King's loyal followers who fought the good fight by his side until he was senselessly silenced, forever, by that assassin's bullet in Memphis, in the spring of 1968, I'm sure regard him as one who exhibited many saintly qualities; and in his making the ultimate sacrifice---his very mortal being--- as a martyr for the greater good, accordingly deserves full sainthood. But when pigs fly, that glorious day shall likely come to pass.

Interestingly, as I recall, a few years back the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta appeared to be on the Vatican fast-track to sainthood, but the holy fathers were having some difficulty in coming up w/ a second bona fide required miracle related directly to the actions of the diminutive Holy Mother Superior.

Then wouldn't you know it, the late Brit/ American arch-provocateur, Christopher Hitchen's comes along and basically attempts to explode the whole Mother Teresa glowing aura of sweetness, light, and charitable works w/ his smack-down ruthless critique of the dearly departed famed nun. I swear those marble sculptures of the saints and prophets in St. Peter's Square were slack-jawed in disbelief. Mother Teresa, a total fraud? Sacre blu!

So I gather Mother Teresa's path to sainthood has encountered a few unfortunate speed bumps. Her fate, in this regard, is kind of in limbo. Purgatory might be too harsh a judgement?

So much for saintly musings.


P.S.: -----I hope many of my fellow bloggers spend perhaps, at the very least, a few precious minutes today, in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. How he ultimately changed the very fabric and collective moral consciousness of this country.

Dr. King may not have physically reached that lofty, prophetic mountain top of universal freedom w/ his hopeful brethren, of which he spoke so eloquently in his historic '60s "I Have a Dream" speech on the Mall in Washington D.C.. He definitely had a vision of this ultimate destination in his mind, and believe w/ all his might, heart, and moral fiber that his people would reach that 'promise land'.

America, dare I say mankind (wishful thinking?), is so much more enlightened and open-minded today regarding the inalienable rights of every human being, because of MLK Jr.'s applied wisdom, courage, activism, and then his ultimate sacrifice. He left footprints, and a legacy very few today could fill.

"We shall overcome........ some day" (Although we've still got a long road to travel, I'm afeared.)

As former president Ronald Reagan often chortled, "Well....... here we go again."

Folks, that should have been "promised land", not "promise land" ---- Dr. King's ultimate destination, in my last post.

What a difference a "d" ......... and a day, makes*.

*An allusion to an old romantic big-band era ballad from the '40s, or '50s.

Can't recall who made it a big hit. Maybe Jo Stafford, or Rosie Clooney? Just guessing.


P.S.: -----The late, great singer,Rosemary Clooney's nephew, Georgie boy (Clooney), fared rather well in last evening's Golden Globes awards----winning Best Actor for his role in "The Descendants". The film also garnered a best picture prize.

That acerbic, but generally hilarious Brit comic, and return-host for the event, Ricky Gervais, seemed to be on his best behavior, for the most part. He really toned down the lewd, rude and crude material that dominated last year's effort, but he wasn't exactly deporting himself like a choir boy on stage, either.

As a Canadian, I was pleased to see veteran Canadian actor Christopher Plummer win for Best Supporting Actor in a dramatic feature film. (Didn't see his movie, however.)

For me, I think that adorable little terrier in "The Artist" stole the show, even posing for the photogs w/ one paw resting on the Golden Globe trophy won by Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, the pooch's co-star, French actor, Jean Dujardin.

Alex, it may have missed your attention, but as a huge fan of George Clooney and a Baltimorean by choice, I'd like to point out that the gorgeous blonde on his arm is Baltimore's very own Stacy Keibler. She's come a long way from professional wrestling and "Dancing with the Stars" (which she should have won).

Good morning, Alex,

>I could be off base here, but I seem to detect a slight taint of sarcasm in your query re/ future sainthood for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

No indeed sir. I recall a decade ago hearing that King was a short-list candidate for sainthood. The notion gave me a warm feeling.

Yes, it's a brand name. If Krispy Kreme didn't destroy English, neither will Waterstones. (Just as Harrods didn't, or Lloyds.)

In my role as go-between for this company's customers and an outside contractor who provides a service in this company's name, that data processing protocol is not to "bother with" apostrophes. Commas - that pesky one that usually precedes "Inc." - either.

Dr King was not a Roman Catholic. I belive that only Roman Catholics are candidates for sainthood. End of discussion.

Oh Patricia, Patricia, you know that there's no end to discussion.

There was the Church of England's attempt to canonize Charles I, viz., the Society of King Charles the Martyr. It didn't take, but the attempt was made.

And the Episcopal Church has enrolled Dr. King in "Lesser Feasts and Fasts" (feast day April 4) along with saints and heroes of the faith, which, though not formal canonization, looks like a functional equivalent.

How do you mean 'didn't take'? How do you mean 'attempt'? He was canonised by the Church of England: what greater authority could there be? I don't know who keeps the definitive ethereal list of these things (S Peter, perhaps?) but I think you'll find the unpleasant Charles Stuart has a tick next to his name.


I apologize for my presumption that your earlier query re/ the current status of Dr. King's potential sainthood was not an honest and sincere one; colored, in my (erroneous) view w/ a hint of intended sarcasm. A bit of a misread on my part.

Nevertheless, your did stir up some lively conversation, at some point inadvertently spurring the resurrection of old King Charles I, the sole saint, to date, canonized by the Church of England's Anglican Communion, declared Charles the Martyr/ Saint Charles Stuart; brought to our attention by none other than our esteemed blogmeister.

Then Sir Picky of London town's dander was clearly aroused by Prof. McI.'s not giving (Anglican) Saint Charles Stuart his just dues, which frankly peeked my curiosity regarding another, earlier monarch of famed Stuart lineage, namely the controversial Mary Queen of Scots.

Ardent Catholic believers of her day, on the occasion of Mary's February 7th, 1587 execution by beheading at Fotheringhay Castle (by order of then-reigning Queen Elizabeth I), felt she deserved eventual official saintly status, since she sacrificed herself as a martyr for the integrity of her Catholic faith, ever committed to her unflagging personal mission of restoring Catholicism as the official religion of Great Britain.

In reading a few documented eyewitness retellings of her execution, most accounts claim it took at least two, if not three, blows of a butcher's ax to completely sever her head from her body.


The first blow, factually consistent in all accounts, landed closer to one shoulder than her neck, but the second swipe proved to be the fatal slash; yet some reports alleged that a third stroke of the ax was required to sever a small piece of sinew that prevented Mary's head from freely tumbling to the ground. (Ugh!)

The final humiliation occurred when the axeman raised Mary's severed head for the gathered rabble to observe, and almost immediately it fell to the scaffold below, leaving a wig of auburn hair in the startled executioner's hand.

The comely Queen Mary was apparently quite vain to her very dying day. Her actual hair was revealed to be cropped rather short and was marked grey. Up till her time of death In her mid-forties, she had worn a wig for some time, giving her public the impression that she had retained the lustrous auburn tresses of her youth. But I digress.

Lawrence, contrary to Patricia the Terse's strict ruling on the 'must-be-a-Catholic' for true sainthood qualification, I still believe Dr. King deserves the exalted title.

Immigrant farm labour political activist Caesar Chavez, a staunch practicing Catholic no doubt, could be another strong candidate for sainthood, although his eventual passing was not a violent, traumatic one like Dr. King's.

His martyrdom, for me, rests in his long self-sacrifice, and commitment to the cause of his fellow immigrant laborers; for all those tough years of struggle; constantly putting himself on the frontline lines of non-violent civil disobedience.

Chavez's passing was surely as profound, and heartfelt for his loyal followers and legions of admirers as was Dr. King's premature demise to all those 'believers' who fought w/ him for freedom and equality-for-all in America.

Hmm........ but that sticky two-required-miracles issue could put to rest any real possibility of a future St. Caesar Chavez in the offing. Oh well.

Does "Miracle Gro" fertilizer count as one? (Groan)


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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