Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apostrophe issues

One of the requests for posts, once upon a time, was for grammar snark.  Not in so many words, of course, but the reader asked if I might elucidate on grammar and writing mechanics.

I just wrote up a "study guide" for someone who has consistent issues with homonyms and apostrophes, so I thought that sounded like a good place to start.  For those of you who have graduated college, hopefully this is all very basic to you.  But then, I had several college classmates who didn't know these rules, and they never taught it in any English class I took in college, so it is possible to make it to adulthood without understanding how apostrophes work.

An apostrophe always, with one exception, indicates that there is a letter or letters missing.  If I see one, I'm mentally filling in that space.  Here are a few examples:

Can't = cannot, with the apostrophe standing in for n and o
I'm = I am, with the apostrophe standing in for the a
It's = It is, with the apostrophe standing in for the second i
They're = They are, with the apostrophe standing in for the a

I deliberately read contractions this way when I'm editing, so that I can spot potential apostrophe abuse.  It serves me well.

The exception to the apostrophe rule is when apostrophe s ('s) is used to show that something belongs or is closely related to the object:

The cat's food
The library's hours
His mother's phone

Where this gets confusing is, if we're working with a pronoun, you don't use apostrophe s:


This is just a rule you have to memorize and know.  The way I initially remembered it was because "my" doesn't have an apostrophe s.

With English, it's always the damn exceptions that get you.  Within this one little rule, there's an exception, then an exception to that, and you just have to try to remember, all while you're trying to get the sentence off the ground and going where you need it to.

Honestly, if I were anything but a pantster, I'd be putting these grammar posts first, because it's important to know your basic building blocks before you can put them together to make a story.  If you're churning out whole manuscripts, it may be a bit late, now, to start fixing your apostrophe issues.  But it's not too late for future edits, I suppose.

My next post will be less boring and basic, though I can't promise that. I hope someone out there finds this helpful.


  1. Part of me dies inside when I see someone use an apostrophe to make a word plural. Example: I have book's instead of I have books.

    Several years ago, I stormed out of TJ Maxx after seeing a sign indicating that I was in the (wait for it) Ladie's Department. I cringed just now thinking of this incident.

  2. AUGH!

    I think I would need to speak to a manager about that.

    I can see why apostrophes aren't as automatic as they seem to me. I can't remember ever receiving a lesson on proper apostrophe usage in all my years of school, though I do remember diagramming sentences in middle school and half a class period learning about the semicolon. I remember my sixth grade teacher being shocked we had no idea what the i before e rhyme was.

    Come to think of it, that one's just infested with exceptions, too, isn't it?

  3. It is! And I agree that the educational system isn't properly teaching basic English grammar. My facebook newsfeed is ample evidence of that. Friends of mine who are teachers can't grasp the proper use of an apostrophe. If teachers can't use it correctly, how will their students?

  4. Way back in college, I was the copy editor for the school paper, and I wrote editorials about the importance of grammar in the "real world." I got a letter, riddled with errors, about how elitist and snobbish I was, and that I was making a big deal out of nothing.

    The letter was from an Education major. *shudder*