Few punctuation marks are as abused as the blameless apostrophe. The better you understand its job, the less likely you are to do the little critter harm.
Possession: The Apostrophe’s Favourite Pastime
Apostrophes often show possession or ownership:
- The science project’s effects were unforeseen and world-altering. (The effects belong to the science project.)
- Satan’s cheerleaders have set fire to the auditorium. (The cheerleaders belong to Satan.)
When the owner is plural, the apostrophe dangles after the s like the severed ear in Blue Velvet:
- The hippies’ bus is parked on our lawn.
- The aliens’ spaceships are a fetching shade of pink.
But don’t make the mistake of giving the David Lynch treatment to plural owners that don’t end in s. They can be treated the same as singular owners:
- The children’s pyromaniacal tendencies…
- The men’s feather boas…
- The sheep’s plans for world domination…
And what about singular owners that end in s? Opinion is divided. Americans like the simpler, apostrophe-only method:
- the cactus’ spines
- David Sedaris’ stories
The Brits, on the other hand, prefer the full Monty:
- Tom Jones’s knickers
- Prince Charles’s ears
If you decide to go the British route, you should know that because of tradition or weird pronunciation certain names take only an apostrophe:
- Jesus’ sandals
- Moses’ beard
- Achilles’ heel
If you’re not sure, say the word out loud—if you don’t pronounce the extra s, you don’t need to write it (as in the expression for goodness’ sake).
Finally, be warned that the possessive forms of pronouns (those promiscuous little words than can be used for any person or thing) do not take apostrophes:
You wouldn’t stick an apostrophe in these any more than you would in my or mine.
Contractions: C’mon and Squeeze Me, Baby
The ’em in this post’s title is a shorter version of them (like ’cause and because); its beginning was amputated like a gangrenous limb and an apostrophe was put in its place to show something had been removed. Similarly, contractions are words in which some of the letters have been squeezed out and replaced with apostrophes:
- what’s = what is
- wouldn’t = would not
- can’t = cannot
- let’s = let us
Some contractions are the source of considerable confusion and hair-pulling, namely
- it’s = it is (or it has)
- who’s = who is (or who has)
- you’re = you are
- they’re = they are
Their doppelgangers – its, whose, your, and their – are all possessive pronouns, like my and mine, and don’t take apostrophes.
It’s vs. Its: The Cheat Sheet
If you’re not sure which word to use, try plugging in it is (for it’s) or his (for its) and see which works best.
Example: It’s an ill wind that blows its nose in your direction.
- It is an ill wind that blows his nose in your direction. (Makes reasonable sense)
- His an ill wind that blows it is nose in your direction. (Total gibberish)
The example sentence is correct.
Example: Who’s the idiot whose car is at the bottom of my swimming pool?
- Who is the idiot his car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Kind of makes sense)
- His the idiot who is car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Not so much)
Example: You’re not giving them your best sharkskin suit!
- You are not giving them his best sharkskin suit! (Reasonable)
- His not giving them you are best sharkskin suit! (Horsepuckies)
Here are a few more examples:
- What a long, strange trip it’s been. (it has been)
- Whose brownies did you eat? (his brownies)
- She’s a girl who’s got her heart in the right place. (who has got)
- Unfortunately, she’s also a girl whose heart likes to step out once in a while. (her heart likes)
- I’ll tell them you’re swimming with the dolphins. (you are swimming)
- The slimy alien wants its teddy bear. (his teddy bear)
- They’re spending this weekend preparing for the zombie apocalypse. (they are spending)
Grammarians used to urge us to put apostrophes in plurals that contained numbers or capital letters, but that usage has since fallen out of fashion and you can now go with the cleaner-looking 1920s and DVDs. But there are a few situations where you might want to stick in an apostrophe to keep your reader from getting confused:
- cross your i’s and dot your t’s
- a report card of A’s and B’s
The point of all this punctuation is, after all, to make your reader’s work as easy as possible. The clearer your meaning, the more convincing your argument.
(A version of this article was originally published at Suite101.com.)