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Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 1

Updated on August 3, 2018

Apostrophe Catastrophe

We, as a society, seem to have collectively forgotten what apostrophes are for. Apostrophe misuse was once confined to student essays and grocery signs (Carrot’s, $0.99/lb), but now it looks like even highly educated people are sprinkling apostrophes around willy-nilly, perhaps hoping that they’ll get it right by accident some of the time. It’s not just me, folks. There’s plenty of evidence that misplaced apostrophes bother a lot of folks. But it doesn’t do much good in the world to just complain about (or poke fun at) apostrophe misuse. Okay, it can be a lot of fun to make apostrophe-related jokes when a bunch of grammar nerds get together, but since we don’t actually pronounce the apostrophe, these jokes have kind of a limited audience. What follows is a guide to a particularly common apostrophe-related mix-up, presented in the spirit of helpfulness. If there’s interest, I may follow this article with more helpful hints.

It’s Its Own Worst Enemy

Yes, everyone tears their hair out over this: when writing the word it, and making it possessive, or adding everyone’s favorite modal auxiliary verb is, do you use an apostrophe or don’t you? Here’s the rule: if you can substitute it is for it’s, you use the apostrophe. If you can’t, you don’t. Seems simple, but even though it’s both simple and true, this rule is not all that helpful. See, it does nothing at all to explain why the apostrophe is or isn’t used. The reason we grammar nerds find it easy to remember when to write its and when to write it’s is that we haven’t just memorized the rule by rote: we understand the reason for the rule. Some of us like to keep this knowledge to ourselves, possibly in an attempt to ensure that there will always be a market for copy editors. Well, my fellow grammarians, have no fear: for as long as people who haven't studied English have something they want to say, there will always be a need for copy editors. The rest of you, come closer. Here’s the big secret.

Pronouns Aren’t Just Nouns That Get Paid

It is a pronoun, like he or him. This probably looks like I’m talking down to you, but really, I’m not. Stay with me. Pronouns all work pretty much the same way, and they work differently from most regular, or common, nouns. There’s a reason for this. Language changes over time, but the words we use most often tend to change more slowly. Take for example the word child. We all know that childs is incorrect if we’re talking about more than one kid, even though we know that we generally add an s to nouns to make them plural. We say children when discussing a lot of them. This follows the same rule as brother once did. In general modern usage, if our parents had two or more male children besides ourselves, we say we have brothers. But when talking about fellow members of a fraternal club or a religion, we sometimes still talk about our brethren. Are you with me so far? Right. So we use pronouns a whole lot. The rules for their usage have changed very very slowly. And this is why my mom’s favorite soap opera isn’t called “All Me’s Childs.”

Knowing that the word it follows similar rules to the word he, and knowing why, suddenly it makes much more sense that when it owns something, we don’t use an apostrophe. Consider the following: if we were talking about a person who suffered a misfortune, we might say, “He lost all of his books in the fire.” No apostrophe, see? We would never say, “He lost all of he’s books.” But suppose a non-living entity, a library, for example, suffered a similar disaster. We would say something like, “The library lost all of its books in the fire.” No apostrophe, just like his.

The same rules and reasons apply to the other tricky pronouns. If you can substitute who is, you write who’s, as in, “Who’s driving us to the movies?” If you can’t, you write whose, as in, “Whose car are we taking to the movies?” You would never answer that question with, “Let’s take me’s car.” You’d say, “Let’s take my car.” No apostrophe.

More People, Same Rule

So far we’ve only talked about singular pronouns, words that refer to only one person, thing, or entity. But what about when something is jointly owned? The same apostrophe rules apply. If my friend Tom has a house, I can talk about Tom’s house, or Tom can talk about his house.  And talking about both, I can say, “That house is Tom’s,” or I can say, “That house is his.” No apostrophe, and most of us have no problem remembering this. But suppose Tom is married and owns a home jointly with his wife Mary. We can talk about Tom’s and Mary’s house, and Tom and Mary can talk about their house. No apostrophe. When talking about Tom, Mary, and the house they own, we’d say, “That house is Tom’s and Mary’s,” or we can say, “That house is theirs.” No apostrophe, because possessive pronouns don’t take one. It works the same way when we’re part of the group being discussed. My wife and I jointly own a house. The house is my wife’s and mine. It’s (see what I did there?) our house. The house is ours. No apostrophe.

Why The Confusion?

Don’t feel bad if you used to make these mistakes. The confusion comes from the fact that in most cases, you do use the apostrophe with an s to show ownership. It also doesn’t help that lots of possessive pronouns end with an s, as in theirs, or the same sound a written s would make, as in whose. You were applying the rule for common nouns and proper nouns to pronouns, which serve the same function in your sentences, and if the language made logical sense, the same stinking rule would apply! The mistake seems to make sense, and is understandable. But pronouns being what they are, they follow an old, irregular rule. Luckily, they all follow the same old, irregular rule. Now you know the rule, and you know why it applies. Why it was ever a rule in the first place is still up for debate, even among historical linguists.


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