Where the apostrophes go

February 15, 2008

I’ve always been good with apostrophes. I once annoyed an English teacher by interrupting his lesson to ask about fo’c’s’les. I was genuinely interested.

Anyway, apostrophes have their own logic, and I’m not going to say it’s a good one. They’re mainly used to represent something you’re leaving out (like the “a” in you are) or something that belongs to somebody.

It’s and its is the one that always gets people. It’s is a contraction of it is. Now, its does denote belonging to it and that’s where the confusion comes in. His (only a short step from its) doesn’t have an apostrophe, so  neither does its.

Neither does your (belonging to you) or their (belonging to them). You’re and they’re are contractions of you are and they are. Easy. Any time you have an apostrophe crisis, think about whether you could use some form of ‘to be’ – in which case, throw the apostrophe straight into the mix – or not, in which case you leave it out.

One that stumped me for a while was figuring out where it should go with plural possessives – “seven years’ experience”, say.  It might not even be clear that that needs an apostrophe, until you think of what happens when it’s only one year: “one year’s experience”. The experience (according to English) belongs to the year. And, when there are several years, the apostrophe goes after the s.

There’s debate, too, about whether you should add the s after possessives that end in s. “The bus’s driver” or “The bus’ driver”? My rule of thumb is, if you say the extra s, you should write it (so, “the bus’s driver” but “the busses’ drivers”).

I remember seeing a copy of Alice in Wonderland in which words like shan’t were, quite logically, written sha’n’t. While it’s logical (we’re missing a couple of ls from shall not, as well as the o), it no longer seems to be correct usage.

It’s rare that misusing an apostrophe will completely change the meaning of the sentence. However, it does make (some? many?) readers think of you as less intelligent or more lazy and – in some cases – throws them for a total loop or causes severe mental distress. So think about it. Please. People will hate you if you don’t watch out for where the apostrophe goes.

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