Death to Common Grammatical Errors - Apostrophes!
Ever lost marks in an essay or had an article or short story temporarily turned down for publication due to the need to "re-edit?" A large part of this may genuinely be concerned with poor sentence structure and word choices, all of which is frustrating, but bearable, as these mistakes are genuine difficulties which necessitate a large amount of time in order to be perfected. It's the simple grammatical errors, the ones you know you used to know, or know you read somewhere once, or always have to look up because you can never remember them despite having checked the rule two hundred times, that are the pesky, truly irritating elements of writing. These simple errors differ from person to person, but let's attempt to now examine one of the ones most commonly spotted, and to investigate potential techniques with which to perfect it.
It's, its, it is ...
Okay, let's explore the murky world of apostrophes. "But this is easy, I learned this in primary school," perhaps you scoff, your finger poised on the "x" button at the top of the screen. Well, you'd be surprised by how many people have never truly grasped the rule of that pesky diagonal line. Take comfort in knowing, however, that despite all appearances, the usage of the apostrophe is actually fairly straightforward, and a simple explanation will hopefully put you right on track. Let's take a look, shall we?
- "It's a nice day today": Do we need the apostrophe? Well, does the sentence "It is a nice day today" make sense? Absolutely! This means that the apostrophised form, "It's", is correct in this example, as it's a contraction of "it is".
- "The mouse fell off its wheel", however, does not require the apostrophe, as the sentence, "The mouse fell off it is wheel", makes no sense, meaning that in this case "its" forms no contraction and therefore does not require the apostrophe.
- By the same token, "You're beautiful" requires an apostrophe because "You are beautiful" makes sense, whereas "Your house is very large" needs no apostrophe, as "You are house is very large" makes no sense.
Firstly: Apostrophes must be inserted whenever you contract a word from its standard to its abbreviated form. If you're ever unsure about whether an apostrophe should be inserted, read the sentence in its full, un-contracted form, to see if it makes sense. If it does, you know you need to insert an apostrophe between the first word and the contracted ending of the second. Try to get into the habit of reading all sentences in this way as you write or type, until the process of distinguishing a contraction from a normal word becomes second nature. However, it's important to note that contractions like this are generally not acceptable in academic pieces of writing, as scholars prefer to see the standard, full length version of words due to the professionalism it lends the piece.
- "The trees swayed in the breeze:" In this case we've added an "s" to make the word "tree" plural, but we don't need an apostrophe because nothing in this sentence belongs to the trees, and the "s" therefore does not denote possession. If we try our name trick, we can see that a sentence like "The Billy's swayed in the breeze" simply doesn't make sense. You would have to say, "Billy swayed in the breeze", and so we can conclude that this sentence needs no apostrophe.
- However, consider: "The tree's roots curled through the damp soil". In this case the roots belong to the tree, so the sentence is possessive. The "s" is therefore added not to make the word plural, as we are dealing only with one tree, but rather to make the sentence possessive. Again, try the name trick. The sentence, "Billy's roots curled through the damp soil" may not make sense in context, but it makes perfect sense grammatically, and would make sense if the tree bore the name "Billy". Therefore, we can see that the apostrophe is correct.
- What if you want to say, "The tree's roots curled through the damp soil", but you're talking about more than one tree? Perhaps the roots of six trees are curling through the soil. Well, this is when the apostrophe shifts to the end of the word. Phrases like "the trees' roots curled through the soil" or "the dogs' kennels", ustilise apostrophes denoting both their possessive (the roots belong to the tree and the kennel belongs to the dog) and their plural (there are multiple trees and dogs involved) nature.
Secondly: Possession. Apostrophes are used to tell us that something belongs to someone. That, for example, "Peter's book is green". This is necessary, for in English words are made plural by ending them with an "s", so simply tacking an "s" onto the end of any old word is not enough to denote its possessive nature. Rather, something needs to be in place to tell you that a particular item belongs to someone. What if that particular item belongs to more than someone? What if it belongs to a number of people? Well, then the apostrophe shifts position from its habitual place between the last letter of the word and the added "s", to the end of the word itself. A good way of remembering whether a sentence is possessive is to sometimes substitute the person, place, or thing, with a name, as names only add an "s" in relation to possession or contraction, and therefore always require apostrophes. For example, if you're struggling to decide whether the "dog's kennel" requires an apostrophe, switch the word "dog" for the animal's name. We've already established that names with an added "s" must be apostrophised, and as "Billy kennel" makes no sense at all, we can see that "Billy's kennel" is appropriate. As the kennel belongs to Billy, it similarly belongs to the dog, so it needs the possessive apostrophe. Just remember that a purely plural word needs no apostrophe, that a possessive word needs an apostrophe between the second last letter and the final "s", and that both a plural and a possessive word requires an apostrophe after the final "s". And don't panic. Once you master the rule, you'll find apostrophes rather dull, I promise!
The cats were hungry
The cat's dinner
The cats' dinner
The bikes were red
The bike's wheels
The bikes' wheels
The trees on the street
The tree's leaves
The trees' leaves
Some English speakers debate the use of the apostrophe within signs such as "Green Grocers", as it varies from this to "Green Grocer's" to "Green Grocers' " between stores, with seemingly little standardisation.
- "Green Grocer's" is correct in the case of one grocer.
- "Green Grocers' " is correct in the case of more than one.
- "Green Grocer" is correct in the implication that the store belongs to no grocer, but is simply called by this name.
Despite this debate, however, all can be technically considered correct, and, although bothering some people, the apostrophisation in this scenario is not really a case of dire importance.
- Take the phrase: "The men's vests". The singular version, "man", in its plural form transforms not into "mans", but rather into "men", meaning that it has its own plural form, rather than following the rule of simply adding a final "s". Because we know that "men" is plural, we know that a sentence such as "the men's vests" is referring to multiple men. There is no ambiguity, and seeing as the apostrophe shift to the end of the word is only necessary to make plurality clear, it need not take place in this case. An apostrophe is, however, still needed to denote the possession of the vests.
- By the same token, "the women's makeup" obviously refers to multiple women, seeing as this is the plural form of the word "woman". Again, we do not need to shift the apostrophe, because plurality is clear, and it therefore only takes on the possessive feature, in this case, of makeup.
- What about "the people's cars?" People is another one of those words that has its own plural form (person becomes people), rendering the apostrophe shift to denote plurality futile. Its placement in this word refers only to the possession of the cars.
The Tricky Bit
Don't worry, this section isn't too aptly named, but it's here because there's one part of the rule that often confuses a number of English students, and which I now intend to address. I stated above that "both a plural and a possessive word requires an apostrophe after the final 's' ", but it's important to note that this is only the case if the word does not have its own plural form. If you're now staring at your screen and scratching your head in blatant confusion, don't worry; I can assure you that it makes perfect sense when you give it some consideration! After all, we added the apostrophe to the word "tree's" to let people know that it was possessive. In order to then be clear about the fact that multiple trees are involved, we needed to shift the apostrophe to the end of the word (trees'). If this shift didn't exist, it would always be ambiguous as to whether the noun (in this case a tree) was singular or plural. However, this ambiguity fades entirely when the word has its own plural form, as in "man", which becomes "men". Because the word is not made plural by simply tacking on an "s", it's not at all ambiguous to leave the apostrophe in its original place (between the second last letter and the final "s"). As this word in itself is plural, we do not need to reinstate its plurality by shifting the apostrophe to the end of the word.
Remember that a word like "city" can have three forms: "cities", "cities'" and "city's". When do we use each one?
- "Cities" is simply the plural form of the word, and will be used in a plural, but non-possessive context, such as, "The cities looked very bright."
- "Cities'" is the plural and possessive form of the word, used, for example, to show the possession of the lights in the following sentence, "The cities' lights glowed brightly."
- "City's", however, is the singular and possessive form, and might be used to say, "The city's lights glowed brightly," when only talking about one city.
One Final Thing to Note ...
Some students are confused by words like "country", "city", and "family", all of which have their own plural forms (countries, cities, families). It's true that these words are made plural by replacing the "y" with an "ies", rather than by simply adding an "s", however, in these words the apostrophe is still placed after the final "s", simply because "familie's" or "citie's" constitutes a spelling error. As these words end with an "s" already, another one doesn't have to be added at all, and so we simply keep the final "s", placing the apostrophe at the end. Therefore, in the case of discussing the houses of multiple families, we would say, "the families' houses". Similarly, in names ending with "s", such as "James", it is sometimes considered more acceptable to write "James' bike" than "James's' bike", because we already have the final "s" in place, and are therefore not required to add another. (Please note, however, that both forms are considered correct, and - just because English likes to be complicated - there is often much debate surrounding the issue of whether possessive words ending in an "s" should just add an apostrophe or should add both an apostrophe and another "s".) However, when we are talking about a possessive, singular word that gains an "ies" in its plural form, it is always correct to simply add an "s", separated from the word with an apostrophe. Therefore, we would say "the city's town hall" or "the family's house". Just remember that the only way you ever add an "s" directly to a word like "city" or "family" is when it has an apostrophe, and if it has an apostrophe, it must be used in a possessive scenario.
I truly hope that this has aided your understanding of that often elusive apostrophe. Just try to remember these points:
- Apostrophes must be used when contracting words.
- When apostrophes denote possession they're placed between the final two letters, unless the word already ends in "s", in which case the apostrophe is often, but does not have to be, placed at the end of the word.
- When apostrophes denote both possession and plurality they're placed after the final "s", unless the word has its own plural form, in which case it only takes on the rule of possession. Note that some words with their own plural form, however, like "cities" and "countries", must have the apostrophe at the end of the word in order to avoid grammatical incorrectness.
Follow those tips and you'll be fine.