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Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 1

Updated on March 29, 2011

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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    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Rusti: Agreed--deliberately embarrassing someone is just mean.

    • Rusti Mccollum profile image

      Ruth McCollum 5 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon

      There's never a good reason to embarrass a person for grammer or anything in public. I enjoyed reading your hub. I even learned some things!

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Hi, phdast,

      Yeah, there's no good reason to embarrass someone in public for their grammar/usage

      mistakes. That's one lesson I wish I'd learned when I was like 13 or so. But I probably wouldn't have listened if someone had told me--I was 13, after all.

      Those two hubs sound fascinating. I think I'll go have a look!



    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I absolutely love Grammar Geeks, except when they embarrass me publicly. :) As one of the well-educated you referred to above, I like to think I don't ever make these mistakes, but every now and then I do. I teach History, not English (that was my minor). Does that get me off the hook?

      I wrote two hubs recently that you might enjoy (just ignore the grammar mistakes if you can, maybe by saying to yourself, "My, she is eccentric and has a unique writing style. Guess traditional Grammar is to pedestrian for her."). At any rate, great Hub, lots of positive votes-clicks and definitely Sharing with others. :)

      Etymology, no not Entomolgy, Etymology!

      Paraprosdokians: Are They Fossils, Crystals, Botanicals, Bacteria, Igneous Rocks, Spores, or a Linguistic Device?

    • HattieMattieMae profile image

      HattieMattieMae 5 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

      Thanks for the refresher! :)

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 7 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Jeff, Another good one here. Funny but also helpful. Thanks for the pointers. I can always use some punctuation guidance. Are you planning to cover the topic "Where you at?". That one kills me. Did we run out of verbs or something? Shouldn't it read, "Where you be at?" Just kidding. I meant to say, "At where you be?".

    • jj200 profile image

      jj200 7 years ago from My Bedroom

      Just wanted to say good writing here. Instructing grown ups on proper grammar is not an easy task. It is something that we (hopefully) learn at the very early stages of education, and accounts for many people's writing "habits." As gramarye makes clear, being an adult and trying to learn language (be it foreign or aspects of your own), is difficult.

      Unfortunately, grammar is not being taught, in general, as well as it should be in U.S. schools. It has been in steady decline, from my experience in the field of education, for at least the last 20 years. I'd love to read more hubs in this series and perhaps you could write a hub about "the current state of grammar usage in America." I'd be interested to hear your take as a professional English speaker.

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      Well expressed. I've always had trouble with spelling, and now having to use American spelling on hub pages doesn't help that very much either. However, I've always been fortunate in understanding apostrophes. I've even got American spelling figured out ever since I saw a documentary on Webster's dictionary and how he tried to "rationalize" spelling. Just knowing his philosophy had helped me understand. That's a long way of saying that I agree, if you understand why, then the rule makes more sense.

      BTW thanks for visiting me and leaving comments, it's a great way to introduce yourself. Rated up.

    • Earl Cook profile image

      Earl Cook 7 years ago from Michigan, United States

      Wil Wheaton remarked, on his rather well-trafficked blog, that the need for some basic remedial courses in a variety of core subjects might be very beneficial to him as he approaches forty. I believe this is what he had in mind. Well done!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      I agree with Uninvited Writer-- though I would have spent many years behind bars for "it's", even though I was granted a college degree before learning the simple facts. Thankfully, a very compassionate copy editor rescued me from making the "it's" mistake for the rest of my life.

      It's a very common problem, especially when referring to something that belongs to it.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 7 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Well said. Apostrophe misuse should be a crime.