Monday, February 16, 2015

Those blasted apostrophes...

I’m not sure why apostrophes give us so much trouble, but they do. Perhaps it’s because there are two different reasons to use apostrophes, so we get them mixed up.

The first use of apostrophes is to form possessives. When we say that something belongs to someone, then we need an apostrophe to show who owns what. 

If a word is just a plural, with nothing owned, then there’s no need for an apostrophe. So it would be: Several doctors studied his case. 

If you’re writing about a busy doctor, you’d say: The doctor’s office was filled with people.
The doctor “owns” the office, so we need the possessive form.

If it’s a practice with more than one doctor, it would be The doctors’ office was filled with people.  The doctors all “own” the office together, so again we need the possessive – in this case, on top of the plural doctors.

But if you say, The doctors were very busy, there’s nothing owned here, so there’s no need for an apostrophe. 

The second use of apostrophes is to form contractions. We tend to do all right with they’re (aside from mixing it up with there and their), and I’m and isn't and such; where we get into big trouble is with it’s and its. And that’s probably because we try to apply rule #1 to its, and add an apostrophe when we use it to indicate possession.

But its (along with oursyours, his, and hers) are exceptions to the possessive rule; these pronouns are possessive already so they don’t need apostrophes. We only use an apostrophe when it’s is used as a contraction of it is.

So if you say, The dog chased its tail, we don’t need an apostrophe.

But if we say, It’s a lovely day, then we’re really saying It is a lovely day, and we do use the apostrophe.

Clear as mud, right?

Here are the rules of thumb to help you determine whether you need to add an apostrophe.

Is it a possessive?
If you’re wondering whether to use an apostrophe, ask yourself what the word in question owns. If there’s an answer, then you need the apostrophe.

The clown’s grin was huge. (The clown’s what? The clown’s grin. Apostrophe needed.)
The clowns piled out of the little car. (The clown’s what? – nothing. No apostrophe needed.)

Is it a contraction?
If you’re wondering whether to use an apostrophe, ask yourself what the word in question stands for. If it’s really two words, then you need the apostrophe.

It’s a far, far better thing I do... (It is a far, far better thing... Apostrophe needed.)
It’s time to go to work. (It is time... Apostrophe needed.)
The power surge made the hard drive blow its brains out. (Blow it is brains? Nope – no apostrophe needed.)

Anything I didn't cover? Let's talk about it!

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