Episode 32: December 22, 2006
by Mignon Fogarty
Today's topic is apostrophes.
When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word its. I put an apostrophe in when I shouldn't have, and it was a very traumatic moment in my young life. So when listeners including Katy from Australia, Kristi from Washington, D.C., Amy, and Jon wrote in asking me to talk about proper apostrophe usage, I had a flicker of self-doubt. But I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can't change my past, I feel the next best thing would be to save all of you from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
What Are Apostrophes Used For?
Apostrophes have two main uses in the English language: they stand in for something that's missing, and they can be used to make a word possessive.
Apostrophes first showed up in the 1500s as a way to indicate omissions. Today, the most common place to find this kind of apostrophe is in contractions such as can't (for can not), that's (for that is), and it's (for it is*), but they can also be used in fun ways. If you're writing fiction, you might use apostrophes to eliminate letters to formulate a character's dialect; for example, "I saw 'em talkin' yonder," with apostrophes to indicate that the speaker said 'em instead of them (t-h-e-m), and talkin' instead of talking (t-a-l-k-i-n-g).
It's no wonder that people are confused about apostrophes, because new uses were introduced in the 1600s and again in the 1700s (1), and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that people even tried to set down firm rules (2).
Apostrophes Indicate Possession
One major new use for the apostrophe was to indicate possession. For example, the aardvark's pencil, where there is an apostrophe s at the end of aardvark, means that the pencil belongs to the aardvark. It does not mean the plural of aardvark, and it does not mean "The aardvark is pencil."
An interesting side note is that it doesn't seem so strange that an apostrophe s is used to make words possessive once you realize that in Old English it was common to make words possessive by adding es to the end. For example, the possessive of fox would have been foxes, which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the e with an apostrophe to make fox's in the possessive case. So apostrophe s for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the e was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone eventually forgot all about the missing e.
Common Apostrophe Errors and How to Avoid Them
Now, normally, I would assume that most people understand apostrophe basics and move on, but there are too many examples to the contrary for me to ignore them.
For some reason, people seem especially prone to apostrophe errors, and most especially people who write signs and flyers. Katy sent me the above photo of a sign in a vegetable market advertising “Banana's $1.50.” Banana's apostrophe s, as though a banana was carrying around pocket change. The apostrophe before the s makes the $1.50 a possession of one lucky banana.
I also would have given anything to have had a camera with me when I came upon a menu advertising “Ladie's Night,” L-a-d-i-e-'-s night. I'm assuming the proprietors meant “Ladies' Night,” but I have this image in my mind of the restaurant providing free entry to one particular laddie.
The bottom line is that whenever you are using apostrophes, especially if you are making signs or flyers, take a second and a third look at them to make sure you're doing it right. Do you want to make your noun possessive, or are you making a contraction?
The sad problem is that what we just talked about is the simple part. There's so much to say about apostrophes that this is going to have to be a two-part series. I'll tackle the really tough stuff next time.
Its Versus It's
I want to end with an overview of the word that caused me such torment in second grade: its. Confusing the two forms of its is a very common mistake. It's can mean "it is" when an apostrophe is used to make a contraction, but its, i-t-s-no-apostrophe, is a possessive pronoun just like hers, ours, and yours, none of which take an apostrophe.
Every time I see those ubiquitous eBay commercials with three-dimensional its** standing in for products, I feel like the its are out to get me. So maybe that can help you remember to use special care when confronted with its. I think Amy summed it up best, saying, “Only use the apostrophe when it's is short for it is.” It's really that simple. I-t-apostrophe-s always means "it is"; it has nothing to do with possession, no matter what those eBay commercials say about acquiring possessions.
The Apostrophe Song
That's all. To cap off this first installment about apostrophes, I have a fabulous song written by a listener named Eileen Thorpe.
Now, Eileen must have also been affected by some kind of apostrophe trauma because she wrote these words, which are sung to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree” by Rahel Jaskow of Jerusalem, Israel.
Apostrophe (Oh Christmas Tree)
by Eileen Thorpe
You drive me oh so batty.
Your overuse is a travesty.
Some people just can’t get enough
They must think you’re hot stuff
Some rules to avoid catastrophe.
It’s hers and theirs and yours and its
when you want to possess a bit
And when you need to pluralize,
You don’t need to apostrophize.
And what of words that end in esess?
An apostrophe will only make a mess’s.
I wonder why you so confuse
I’m sure you’re tired of this abuse.
You drive me oh so batty.
Wasn't that fabulous? Thanks again to Eileen Thorpe and Rahel Jaskow. You can check out Rahel's blog Elms in the Yard, at http://elmsintheyard.blogspot.com/, and listen to clips from her award-winning CD, Day of Rest, at http://cdbaby.com/cd/rahel/, and those links will be in the Grammar Girl blog at QuickAndDirtyTips.com.
* A listener named Paul correctly pointed out that it's can also stand for it has.
** Some people would argue that I could have used an apostrophe here to clarify that I meant multiple instances of the three-dimensional it, but in light of the topic of this transcript, I think it would have caused more confusion than clarity. For a further discussion of using apostrophes in unusual constructions, see the Third Use page of the Apostrophe Protection Society's wiki.
- Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 61.
- Cavella, C., and Kernodle, R.A. How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe. http://www.american.edu/tesol/wpkernodlecavella.pdf (accessed December 21, 2006).
Apostrophe Protection Society