Apostrophe Wrangling

Now that we've dealt with why you'd want to get your manuscript right, and how to lay it out for submission, let's get into the details: the basics of punctuation and word usage that make you look like a professional writer instead of an amateur. First of all, apostrophes.

Apostrophes actually follow a couple of simple rules, even if one of them is slightly confusing (as we'll discuss below). Here are the rules:

  1. An apostrophe is used after a noun to indicate that the person or thing referred to by the noun owns something. If an "s" is pronounced, and isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe.
  2. An apostrophe is used to indicate that one or more letters have been left out of a word in the speaker's pronunciation.

Some people who are under the vague impression that apostrophes occur before the letter "s" at the end of words will add apostrophes where they don't belong. This is called the "greengrocer's apostrophe," because you often see it outside the business premises of people who think they are selling "potatoe's". They aren't. They are selling potatoes.

Let's look at both of the apostrophe rules, break them down and explain some of the ways in which people (even good writers) get confused about them.

1. Possessive Apostrophes

Here's our first rule again:

An apostrophe is used after a noun to indicate that the person or thing referred to by the noun owns something. If an "s" is pronounced, and isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe.

The straightforward case first: singular noun (only one person or thing).

The alligator belongs to John. It is John's alligator.

Please forgive me for beginning with the very basics. People do still get this one wrong, leaving the apostrophe out or putting it in the wrong place. Most of them aren't writers, but a few are.

That was simple. How about a plural noun? The rule again: The apostrophe goes after the noun. If an "s" is pronounced, and it isn't already part of the noun, it goes after the apostrophe. So the order is: noun, apostrophe, extra "s" if needed.

The entrance is used by the servants. It is the servants' entrance.

That's one that a surprisingly large number of writers get wrong, even writers who otherwise make few errors. All the servants, not just one servant, own (or use) the entrance, so "servants" is the noun. After that comes the apostrophe. There's already an "s," so we don't need another one.

I read a book once that referred to "the peasant's revolt". Poor fellow, he can't have got very far by himself.

Now, there are a few nouns in English (men, women, children, brethren and oxen are the only ones I can think of) that preserve an old-fashioned plural form from before everything else standardised on the "s" plural. I've seen people get possessive apostrophes wrong with these because they don't know the rule properly, or don't think it through.

The aardvark belongs to the children. It is the children's aardvark.

Resist the temptation to put the apostrophe after the "s", and think through the rule. Noun, apostrophe, then "s" if it's needed. "Children" is the noun, so the apostrophe goes straight after it, and then the "s" at the end.

What about if you're talking about a family, using their surname to refer to them collectively? Same rule: noun (which is the family's name, but in the plural form because you're talking about more than one of them), apostrophe, extra "s" if you pronounce one (but you don't, because it's already part of the noun).

This archaeological dig belongs to the Joneses. It is the Joneses' archaeological dig.

This spaceship belongs to the Robinsons. It is the Robinsons' spaceship.

But if you're using an individual's surname, you do put an extra "s" after the apostrophe, if you pronounce it:

This is Indiana Jones's dig.

This is Tom Robinson's spaceship.

Some people don't pronounce the extra "s" if there's already one in the name:

This is Ezekiel Jones' desk.

Either way, the rule works.

That one rule is all you need to know to get possessive plurals right 100% of the time. Noun (singular or plural), then the apostrophe, and finally another "s" if you pronounce it and it isn't already part of the noun.

Pronouns don't count as nouns for purposes of this rule, by the way. I'll talk about them more below.

Special Phrases

There are a couple of phrases that require possessive apostrophes but don't always get them. Again, if you think them through you'll understand why the apostrophe should be there.

One is arm's length, as in "she kept him at arm's length". It means that she kept him at the length of her arm--or, if you like, at the length belonging to her arm. You could make a case for phrasing it as at arms' length, though that isn't how it's most commonly punctuated. In either case, the apostrophe still needs to be in there.

The other is three weeks' notice. I often see variations of this (with various lengths of time) missing their apostrophe. It's not instantly obvious that the apostrophe is needed, but think for a moment: you'd say a week's notice, not a week notice. If it's a week's notice then it needs to be three weeks' notice to be consistent and follow our first rule.

2. Abbreviating Apostrophes

Apostrophes also have another purpose, as in our second rule:

An apostrophe is used to indicate that one or more letters have been left out of a word in the speaker's pronunciation.

For example: isn't, ain't, don't, let's, we'll, you'd, hangin', 'Arry.

In the case of isn't, ain't and don't, the missing letter is the "o" of "not".

In the case of let's, the missing letter is the "u" of "us".

It isn't always just one letter. In the case of we'll, there are two missing letters, the "w" and "i" of "will". The word you'd drops almost the whole of the word "would," four out of the five letters.

Notice that all of these are examples where two words have been compressed into one. The missing space just goes missing, with no apostrophe to mark its disappearance. It gets no respect.

The missing letter or letters can be at the beginning or end of the word, as well as in the middle, as in hangin' or 'Arry (Harry pronounced with a Cockney accent - notice that the A takes over the capital, because it's someone's name). As a side note, use this kind of dialect indicator sparingly. It quickly becomes annoying to the reader.

So What About Pronouns?

The most common apostrophe mistakes by far are the ones with pronouns, like it's/its, they're/their and so forth. This is for a couple of reasons.

The first is that our minds don't always clearly distinguish between two words that sound alike but are spelled differently. It's a glitch in our mental software. Even if you know which word is the right one, you may sometimes type the wrong one, especially if you're in a hurry or distracted. If you know you're prone to doing that, you need to become more vigilant in checking your work. (I'll have some tips for catching more typos in a later chapter.)

The second reason people confuse these words is that they are confusing. It seems like the first rule should apply, and it's should mean "belonging to it". But actually the second rule applies, and it's means it is.

If it helps, you can think of it this way: pronouns (it, they and so forth) don't count as full nouns and so don't share in their privileges or responsibilities when it comes to apostrophe rule number one.

What may help more is my simple trick for keeping these pairs of words straight. Just compare them to she's and her, which sound completely different from each other, but follow the same pattern as the rest of the pronouns. Like this:

Pronoun [Pronoun] is Belonging to Pronoun
she she's her
he he's his
it it's its
they they're their
we we're our
who who's whose

If you're genuinely stuck and can't remember which way round the rule goes, ask yourself "would I say she's or her if I was talking about a woman here?" Then use the form with the same number of apostrophes.

We'll talk more about typos like we're/were and we'll/well in a later chapter. Those are usually problems of the typing hands more than problems of understanding. For now, I hope that's made the rules of apostrophes clearer for you.

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