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Apostrophes, Adjectives & Adverbs, the Conditional: More Common Mistakes in Writing & Speaking English
Definition of Apostrophe
Apostrophe or Not?
The misuse or lack of use of apostrophes where needed drives me mad! I'll qualify that; it drives me mad when those who abuse them are professionals.
I don't expect the whole world to know about them, I don't expect those for whom English is a second language to always get them right, I don't expect the local greengrocer to write correctly his board advertising today's cheap vegetables "Fresh Green's!" (should be Fresh Greens - no apostrophe)
An apostrophe is used in two situations:
- to indicate an omission of a letter or letters
- to indicate possession (sometimes!)
It can be a problem for many but is simpler than you think.
Let's take the omission of letters first.
Omission of Letters
"I cannot do that" sounds a bit stilted if we say it. Normal conversation is not like that, we do not talk this way.
Instead we say, "I can't do that", normal conversation "isn't" like that and we "don't" talk that way.
"cannot" becomes "can't"; we have taken out the letters /no/, so we replace them by an apostrophe.
"is not" becomes "isn't"; this time we've removed the /o/.
"do not" becomes "don't", again by removing the /o/.
"we have" becomes "we've", by removing the letters /ha/.
'we are' becomes "we're".
Other examples are: What's (what is), they're (they are), it's (it is)
Do you get the picture? Simple really, isn't it?
This is usually the one that catches out so many writers.
I mentioned the greengrocer's sign. He was talking about "greens", as in green vegetables. This is the plural, more than one, where all you need to do is add the letter /s/.
In the first sentence of this paragraph is the word "greengrocer's"; I was talking about his sign, the sign belonging to one greengrocer, the greengrocer's sign. The sign belongs to him so we have to put an apostrophe to indicate the possession.
Now comes the complicated part!
If you have more than one person to whom an object or objects belong, the apostrophe goes after the letter /s/. Here's an example:
Singular - one girl: The girl had some chewing gum. It was the girl's chewing gum.
Plural - two or more girls: The girls had some beer (to share between them)! It was the girls' beer.
Plural - two or more girls + two or more bags: The girls had some bags. They were the girls' bags.
It's only the number of people or things to which something belongs which affects the position of the apostrophe.
There are also plurals with /es/ instead of a single /s/:
In this case, the apostrophe still goes after the /s/:
The foxes' coats were a vibrant russett.
Singular & Plural
Names Ending in /s/
One more thing; people's names ending in /s/.
James, Rees, Frances, Doris are just a few. English is kind to you for this one; you can choose!
James has a cat. It's James' cat or it's James's cat. You usually hear two of the letter /s/ when you say it so you can add the extra /s/ if you wish.
Doris owns a house. It's Doris' house. It's Doris's house. Which one do you prefer?
Beware the Irregular Plurals
There are plural words which are not made by simply adding an /s/ to the single. For example:
men, women, people (already plural words), sheep (the same for singular & plural).
These words take an apostrophe before the /s/, just like the single word:
'The men's trousers were beautifully embroidered!' (all the men had beautifully embroidered trousers, or all the trousers for men were beautifully embroidered).
'The people's party voted for change.'
'The sheep's foot was damaged.' (one sheep). 'The sheep's field was huge.' (all the sheep)
It's a tractor. Its wheels are yellow.
It's & Its
I'm always asked about this one. It's a pig of an issue.
Notice I've used "it's" in that second sentence. What's that short for? You've got it - "it is". It's a contraction so follows the same rules as our first section in that a letter is missing and you've substituted an apostrophe. Easy, eh?
Ok. So now the word "Its". Take a deep breath!
Think about "his" and "hers". It belongs to him so it is "his". It belongs to her so it is "hers". A logical progression is that if it belongs to it, then we write "its", NO apostrophe.
his, hers, its - simple, yes? Yes.
Look at the following examples for clarification:
It's the tenth time today the dog has jumped through its hoop. (It is the tenth time today that the dog has jumped through the hoop that belongs to it.)
It's time that bird had its wings clipped. (It is time someone clipped the wings that belong to that bird.)
See why we need the word "its"? Bit long-winded without it, don't you think?
Nouns & Adjectives
Ok. Now we'll move on to Adjectives and Adverbs. To understand these, firstly we have to look at nouns and adjectives.
A noun is a thing, object, or person, such as "a table", "a boy", "a piece of paper".
We often want to know what a noun is like, we need to describe it. We use an adjective to describe a noun.
The baby was ugly. ("baby" is the noun, "ugly" is the adjective)
The information was correct. ("information" - noun; "correct" - adjective)
There are various types of nouns but we'll stick to the basics for now.
He put the pretty picture on the brick wall. Can you spot the nouns and the adjectives? Nouns - "picture" & "wall"; adjectives - "pretty" & "brick": excellent, well done! Yes, well spotted, "brick" can be a noun as well but here it is used as an adjective.
You're starting to wonder why I'm stating the obvious aren't you?
It's because we need these basics to go on to where many make mistakes - the adverbs! "Oh no", I hear you cry, "Not the adverbs!"
A colourful, stripy Gromit!
Verbs & Adverbs
Adverbs are directly connected to verbs.
A verb is a "doing" word, in its basic form preceded by "to", such as "to do", "to make", "to ski", "to play football".
The adverb plays its part by telling us how the verb is done.
He played football. That's rather a boring sentence. We're not really interested. However, if I tell you that he played football scintillatingly, you're beginning to take a little more interest. The word "scintillatingly" is an adverb. An adverb usually has the letters "ly" at the end (but not always; English is full of exceptions as you well know). It tells you how he played.
So, look at the following:
The boy played good. WRONG! The boy played well (there's one of the exceptions). Good is an adjective, well is the adverb.
The boy played a good game. Correct! The word "good" refers to the game, not how the boy played.
I've made a wonderful (adjective) cake. I made it carefully (adverb). Are you beginning to get the idea? I hope so.
Find the Adverbs!
The Verb "to be"
Just when you think you've got this verb/adverb thing, I'm going to disappoint you. "To be" is a verb which tells you about the state of someone or something. It tells you how they are.
I am clever. He is wonderful. They are magnificent.
When using this verb you only need adjectives.
You can't say, "He is handsomely." You know this of course; I'm just making sure that you realise "to be" is a verb.
Right, we've got that out of the way, let's move on!
Don't panic! This is the last section. I have to get this off my chest.
The conditional is all to do with possibilities, there being conditions as to whether or not something will happen. The conditional goes with words like "if", "would", "should".
"He would make a pie if only he had the ingredients." (He can't make a pie but he would like to.)
"Would that he had said hello to her!" (It would have been a good idea but he didn't say hello.)
"I don't think he should do that." (It's not a good idea for him to do that.)
The problems seem to be mainly with the subjunctive "were". It seems that, more and more, "was" is being used instead of "were". Ok, so language evolves but it still gives a slightly different meaning.
"If I were to come over tonight, would you be available?" There is a distinct possibility that you won't go. (I might not come over but if I did....)
Giving advice is a situation where this is used more often. "If I were you, I'd think twice about going out with him." (I'm not you but, put in your position, I would.....)
If only I were there.......
The Minefield of Language
The English language can seem like a minefield but most of it is fairly logical once you get used to it! If you want to make it your profession or at least use it frequently, then it's up to you to be the best you can and learn as much as possible.
If English is your second language, then that's a different kettle of fish. Hats off to you if you can speak it well, make yourself understood most of the time and write it with few mistakes. I'll allow you the benefit of the doubt if there are some errors.
I speak French fairly well and write it too but that's the only language other than English of which I can claim knowledge. If I could even speak another language as well as some ESL hubbers write English then I would be happy.
However, if English is your first language, please check if you're not sure about grammar. There are some excellent grammar reference books out there. The quantity is overwhelming but I would recommend those which come under the Oxford University Press banner as they tend to be the best.
Writing from the heart, with a passion about something with which you are familiar will get you a long way. Words are the building bricks, good spelling and grammar are the scaffolding that supports your work. Strong scaffolding will set your work high and make it go even farther.
Grammar is the Scaffolding Holding it all Together
Which of those aspects above is the most difficult for you?
© 2014 Ann Carr