Thursday, March 30, 2006

Apostrophes, 101

How should I use apostrophes?

If you really want to set grammar people on fire, use an apostrophe incorrectly. This humble teardrop of a punctuation mark forms the bulk of the bestseller Eats Shoots and Leaves. The
author's zeal on this point almost makes you feel sorry for grocers who are just trying to sell their potato’s.


There should be no pity for those who can't remember these simple rules. You can remember the first two by telling yourself, apostrophes are all about to have, and to have not.

First to have not:

1) Use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter in a

These might require some memorization:

a. Will not - won’t
b. Cannot - can’t
c. Should not - shouldn’t, and so on...

Do you see the pattern here? The o drops out, and you stick an apostrophe in its place.

And now, to have...

2) Use an apostrophe plus the letter s to form a possessive singular noun -- even if the word ends in S.

a. It was the teacher’s fault.

b. If the noun ends in s, you still add the apostrophe “s” – for
example, the bus’s

c. Note the weird exceptions: ancient proper names that end in an s just get an apostrophe on the end. Also, rare forms such as "for righteousness' sake." You know you've got one of these when you don't pronounce the final "s" on the end. It's not righteousness-ez sake.

If you can’t remember this, you can write around it. Instead of saying, Moses’ sandals, just say, “the sandals of Moses.” Or, "It is the fault of my teachers that I can't remember how to use

3) Use an apostrophe if you’re talking about the plural of letters.

a. The 3 R’s.

This rule, by the way, is hotly debated by grammar nerds. Some purists view this as an abomination. Others go so far as to say you should apostrophize such things as if’s, and’s and but’s.

SPOGG splits the baby here. We believe you can’t talk about all the A’s you got in English class if you don’t stick the apostrophe in there. (It sounds like you’re saying, “I got all As.” As what? As if!

On the other hand, ifs, ands and buts are perfectly clear without the apostrophe, so don’t use them there.

But what about its and it's?

Memorize this. There are no apostrophes in his or hers; there is simply no room on the towel. Same thing goes for its. So, if you've got a possessive on your hands, you don't need an apostrophe.

If you can substitute "it is" where the "its/it's" dilemma lies, then you know you need the apostrophe. It is loses an i, so it gets an apostrophe. It's all fun and games until someone loses an i. (And then it's apostrophe time.)

Hey, what about plurals?

On these, English speakers around the world do not agree. Some say, "Is the Jones's house," while others say, "It's the Jones' house." Who's right?

This is a toughie. When you're talking about the house of the Jones family, you say "Joneses house." But when you're talking about the binding of books, you do not say, "the bookses binding."

It looks cleaner if you don't add that "s" after the apostrophe. So, that’s what we lean toward (even if it does mess with the Jones’ pronunciation a bit).

Whatever you decide for yourself, stick with it. You might not be right, but you won't look as though you're in doubt (and it's doubt that makes the wolves come out of the walls).

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