Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Apostrophe Apostasy

Have you ever seen the movie Hook? It’s a bit of an older film, released in 1991.  Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell.  It’s a great, funny movie, and if you have not seen it, you really ought to.  One of my favorite scenes involves Captain Hook and Mr. Smee.  Smee has just had a brilliant idea, and so he runs into Hook’s cabin and declares, “Captain! I just had an apostrophe!”

Hook rolls his eyes. “You mean an epiphany,” he says, in a impatient voice.

What makes this so funny is that Smee mistakes a word which refers to a type of punctuation for a word that has a similar meaning to “revelation.”  The words aren’t even related in the tiniest sense.  Bob Hoskins, as Smee, really nails the delivery, and when Dustin Hoffman, as Hook, replies, his tone of voice is just so perfect.  It’s a great scene, all in all.

However, while Smee’s misuse of the word “apostrophe” is funny, the actual punctuation mark is being misused a lot as well.  In fact, it’s so common to see it being misused that I knew a newspaper editor who claimed, “I want to rip the apostrophe key off of every keyboard in the world.”

People everywhere have been abusing the poor punctuation mark too much.  It has reached the point of apostrophe apostasy.

You see, the apostrophe has but two major functions in the English language. One, it indicates possession, as in “Bob’s car.”  Two, it indicates a missing letter or sound, as in “didn’t.”  Here are some examples.


If the noun is singular, put the apostrophe before the “s.”

Aunt Millie’s hat is floppy.

George’s coat is made of rabbit fur.

The dog’s rawhide bone is all soggy.

If it’s a proper name that ends with “s,” you may do either of the following, as long as you are consistent.

Charles’s telephone rang.

Charles’ telephone rang.

If the noun is plural (more than one), put the apostrophe after the “s.”

The twins’ bedroom was a mess.

Peanuts are elephants’ favorite food.

If the plural noun does not end in an “s,” indicate possession using the same method as for singular nouns.

The children’s toys were everywhere.

The People’s Republic of  China is the most populous country in the world.

Missing letters:

When letters are omitted, replace them with an apostrophe. This is called a contraction—a shortened form of a word or group of words.

I'm (I am) sorry, Dave; I can’t (cannot) do that.

You don’t (do not) like fishing for squid?

I’ve (I have) a powerful desire to eat popcorn.

It may also be done in lyrics or poetry for the purpose of eliminating an extra syllable. (These are also technically considered contractions.)

Free the pris’ners (prisoners).

Open wide the gates of heav’n (heaven).

Some other contractions are not usually spoken, but are used as shorthand in writing. (Generally, these are used only in correspondence.)

Send that to the engineering dep’t (department).

The FBI is just another gov’t (government) agency.

Apostrophes are also used to indicate missing letters in pronunciation, such as the British Cockney dropping of the “h.”

That ‘ouse (house) is big!  

I’m freakin’ (freaking) out! 

Apostrophe abuse:

Now that you know how apostrophes are supposed to be used, imagine that you walk into a restaurant and are greeted by a menu board that says

“SPECIAL OF THE DAY: Club Sandwich with Carrot Stick’s”

or maybe

“Chicken Fried Steak, Mashed Potatoes, and Pea’s”

Clearly, the apostrophe apostates have been hard at work here.  If you’re anything like me, your first impulse is to run up to that sign and erase that stupid apostrophe, because apostrophes do not indicate that something is plural.  Since that would be rude, though, you draw a deep breath, ignore it, and then promptly go home and write a blog post on the proper use of apostrophes.

I guess I’ve started channeling the spirit of that newspaper editor I mentioned earlier.

To be fair, the apostrophe does make it a little difficult for us to use it correctly…

Apostrophe Exceptions:

Yeah…remember how I said that the apostrophe indicates possession? It does, except for when it is paired with the word “it.”

That’s the English language for you—full of weird exceptions.

So, anyway, here’s how to tell when to use an apostrophe with the word “it.”

It’s—contraction for it is or it has

It’s (it is) a girl!

It’s (it has) been so long!

Its—possessive form of the word it

That dog loves its chew toy.

The chew toy is near the end of its life.

If you aren’t sure whether or not to use the apostrophe with “it,” try replacing “it’s” with “it is” or “it has.” If it makes sense, use the apostrophe.  If it doesn’t make sense, don’t use the apostrophe.

Also, remember how I said that apostrophes should not be used to indicate plurals?                                                                                                                                                                                 
Yeah, there’s an exception to that, too.  If the word is only one letter, you may use the apostrophe to pluralize:

There are two e’s in "exception."

Mary Beth got straight A’s in math.

You may also single or double quotes around the single letter.





My personal preference is to use single quotes.  However, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are consistent.

You can also use the apostrophe in the following ways:

80’s toys were the best.

I was born in the ‘80s.

Are you confused yet?  I hope not, but if you are, you might find this comic from The Oatmeal to be helpful: “How to Use an Apostrophe.”

(A word of caution: this specific grammar comic does not contain any adult language, but the rest of The Oatmeal has some pretty intense swearing and some lewd content.  If you’re under 18, I don’t recommend poking around the rest of the site without a parent’s permission.)

If you ever find yourself totally unsure about whether to use an apostrophe, here’s a rule: when in doubt, leave it out.

Why?  Because if the word is supposed to have an apostrophe and doesn’t, people will look at it and think, “Oops, they forgot the apostrophe.  Oh well, typos happen.”  Whereas if you use it in a word that is not supposed to, they will probably think, “Oh, no!  Those fools have no idea what they’re doing! Apostrophe abuse!” Well, maybe not those words exactly.  But you get the idea.

So, don’t be an apostate.  Use the noble apostrophe well, and the world will reward you.

Or something like that.

So, what do you think about this topic?  Do you have any questions about apostrophes that I didn’t answer?  If you say the word “apostrophe” too many times in a row, does it start to sound weird? Apostrophe, apostrophe, apostrophe…share your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. I wish I had found the time to write my comments sooner, but what with schoolwork, homecoming, a sleepover, a birthday party and a sick day, I've been too swamped to do more than read these last four posts! Finally, a few hours to relax and reflect on the joys of writing!

    I will admit straight off that apostrophe misuse is one of my BIGGEST pet peeves. As such, of course, it's also a topic that I am somewhat lacking knowledge in certain areas of. Thanks for clearing up the "one-letter word" issue- I don't believe that I've ever learned the acceptable way to use that before now. It's been a game of chance on the rare occasions I dared to attempt it. I do have one question, and it's really a very minor one that I'd just like to make certain of. Does "it'd" work as a contraction for "it had", "it would", "it should", "it could", or any other that I may have forgotten?

    1. "It'd" is in fact a contraction for "it had" or "it would." I have never seen or personally used it to mean anything else. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a contraction using "'d" to mean anything other than "had" or "would." It makes sense, really, to limit it to one or two words in our conventions. If we used it to mean too many things, then reading contractions would always be a guessing game.

  2. I can certainly see that. Thanks for clearing it up for me!