Posted by: WITP | 20 October 2011

Technical Tips Series: Apostrophes

Anyone can write, but your actual sentence construction, the proper use of grammar, and punctuation marks are a whole technical ball game.  With that in mind, and the fact that we all want to become better writers WITP presents a series of articles written by Suzanne on the more technical aspects of our craft:

How to… use an apostrophe

So, this little tadpole is for what?  Well, apart from being just about the most misused bit of punctuation (besides the exclamation mark!!!) it indicates ownership or contractions (missing letters), and is really useful to avoid confusion.  So… how to use it?

First, let me get over with a small rant.  Apostrophes ARE NOT USED TO MAKE WORDS PLURAL!  OK, I’m calm now.  Known as the Greengrocer’s apostrophe http://www.wordspy.com/words/greengrocersapostrophe.asp, this misuse is all over the place http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe_(mark)#Greengrocers.27_apostrophes, especially in shop windows.  My favourite is probably “Chicken’s and Egg’s” (http://www.apostrophe.fsnet.co.uk/examples_1.htm).

Ownership
Apostrophes indicate what belongs to whom.  The rules change a bit if the word ends in an s, but put your thinking boots on and read the examples carefully—it really isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds.

If it belongs to one person or thing…

Most of the time, if it belongs to one person or thing, put the apostrophe before the s:

  • The toy belonging to the cat—the cat’s toy.

However, if the person or thing ends with an (eg Chris), think about how you would say it.  If you can hear an s when you say it, put an s after the apostrophe http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/tta/wordpunc/wordpunc.htm#ending:

  • The wildebeest belonging to Chris—Chris’s wildebeest.

If you can’t hear an s when you say it, you don’t need an extra s:

  • The book belonging to Charles Dickens’–Charles Dickens’ book.

If it belongs to lots of people or things:

Most of the time, if it belongs to lots of people or things, the plural word will end in an s, and you put the apostrophe after the s:

  • The toy belonging to the cats—the cats’ toy.

However, it’s that s again.  If it belongs to many people or things, and the plural word doesn’t end in an s (like children or sheep), put the apostrophe (http://www.users.bigpond.com/J_fersOffice/sample.htm) after the s:

  • The tails belonging to the sheep—the sheep’s tails.

Contractions
Apostrophes show where letters are missing (http://tranchant.plus.com/notes/apostrophe):

  • Isn’t.
  • Doesn’t
  • Can’t.

It’s easy to get mixed up with ‘it’s’ and ‘its.  These are two separate words.  Use ‘its’ when you are talking about things belonging together (possessive pronoun):

  • The Horse and Its Boy

Use ‘it’s’ when you are contracting ‘it is’.

  • “It’s not fair,” shouted Jenny.  “I wanted a cat, not a wildebeest.”

And finally, if you thought I rant about apostrophes, see Bob’s Angry Flower http://angryflower.com/bobsqu.gif.

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