Today's topic is apostrophes.
When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word its. I put an apostrophe in when I shouldn't have, and it was a very traumatic moment in my young life. So when listeners including Katy from Australia, Kristi from Washington, D.C., Amy, and Jon wrote in asking me to talk about proper apostrophe usage, I had a flicker of self-doubt. But I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can't change my past, I feel the next best thing would be to save all of you from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
Apostrophes have two main uses in the English language: they stand in for something that's missing, and they can be used to make a word possessive.
Apostrophes first showed up in the 1500s as a way to indicate omissions. Today, the most common place to find this kind of apostrophe is in contractions such as can't (for can not), that's (for that is), and it's (for it is*), but they can also be used in fun ways. If you're writing fiction, you might use apostrophes to eliminate letters to formulate a character's dialect; for example, "I saw 'em talkin' yonder," with apostrophes to indicate that the speaker said 'em instead of them (t-h-e-m), and talkin' instead of talking (t-a-l-k-i-n-g).
It's no wonder that people are confused about apostrophes, because new uses were introduced in the 1600s and again in the 1700s (1), and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that people even tried to set down firm rules (2).
One major new use for the apostrophe was to indicate possession. For example, the aardvark's pencil, where there is an apostrophe s at the end of aardvark, means that the pencil belongs to the aardvark. It does not mean the plural of aardvark, and it does not mean "The aardvark is pencil."
An interesting side note is that it doesn't seem so strange that an apostrophe s is used to make words possessive once you realize that in Old English it was common to make words possessive by adding es to the end. For example, the possessive of fox would have been foxes, which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the e with an apostrophe to make fox's in the possessive case. So apostrophe s for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the e was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone eventually forgot all about the missing e.
Now, normally, I would assume that most people understand apostrophe basics and move on, but there are too many examples to the contrary for me to ignore them.
For some reason, people seem especially prone to apostrophe errors, and most especially people who write signs and flyers. Katy sent me a photo (which you can see on the blog) of a sign in a vegetable market advertising “Banana's $1.50.” Banana's apostrophe s, as though a banana was carrying around pocket change. The apostrophe before the s makes the $1.50 a possession of one lucky banana.
I also would have given anything to have had a camera with me when I came upon a menu advertising “Ladie's Night,” L-a-d-i-e-'-s night. I'm assuming the proprietors meant “Ladies' Night,” but I have this image in my mind of the restaurant providing free entry to one particular laddie.
The bottom line is that whenever you are using apostrophes, especially if you are making signs or flyers, take a second and a third look at them to make sure you're doing it right. Do you want to make your noun possessive, or are you making a contraction?
The sad problem is that what we just talked about is the simple part. There's so much to say about apostrophes that this is going to have to be a two-part series. I'll tackle the really tough stuff next time.
I want to end with an overview of the word that caused me such torment in second grade: its. Confusing the two forms of its is a very common mistake. It's can mean "it is" when an apostrophe is used to make a contraction, but its, i-t-s-no-apostrophe, is a possessive pronoun just like hers, ours, and yours, none of which take an apostrophe.
Every time I see those ubiquitous eBay commercials with three-dimensional its** standing in for products, I feel like the its are out to get me. So maybe that can help you remember to use special care when confronted with its. I think Amy summed it up best, saying, “Only use the apostrophe when it's is short for it is.” It's really that simple. I-t-apostrophe-s always means "it is"; it has nothing to do with possession, no matter what those eBay commercials say about acquiring possessions.
That's all. To cap off this first installment about apostrophes, I have a fabulous song written by a listener named Eileen Thorpe. And I'll play it right after this message.
Now, Eileen must have also been affected by some kind of apostrophe trauma because she wrote these words, which are sung to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree” by Rahel Jaskow of Jerusalem, Israel.
Apostrophe (Oh Christmas Tree)
by Eileen Thorpe
You drive me oh so batty.
Your overuse is a travesty.
Some people just can’t get enough
They must think you’re hot stuff
Some rules to avoid catastrophe.
It’s hers and theirs and yours and its
when you want to possess a bit
And when you need to pluralize,
You don’t need to apostrophize.
And what of words that end in esess?
An apostrophe will only make a mess’s.
I wonder why you so confuse
I’m sure you’re tired of this abuse.
You drive me oh so batty.
I said it in the last episode about apostrophes, and I'll say it again: there are some confusing situations when it comes to apostrophes. For example, Christine, from Portland, Oregon; Judy from Traverse City, Michigan; Katy from Australia; Kristi from Washington, D.C.; and Rick from Las Vegas, Nevada, all asked how to make a singular word that ends in s possessive. I know that this is a raging debate even at the highest levels of government because Tracey from Mountain View, California, and a listener named Arman both sent me a funny article describing U.S. Supreme Court squabbles over making the word Kansas possessive. Words such as Kansas that end with an s can be stumpers when it comes to apostrophes.
Is it Kansas's statute with an apostrophe s or Kansas' statute with just an apostrophe at the end? Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion and prefers to leave off the extra s, referring to Kansas' statute with just an apostrophe at the end, whereas Justice David Souter wrote the dissenting opinion and prefers the double s of Kansas's statute with an apostrophe before the final s.
So who's right? The first clue is that Justice Thomas' name ends with an s, so you might guess that he is more familiar with the issue. Associated Press style also recommends leaving off the extra s. Some of you have noticed that I tend to favor AP style, so you won't be surprised to learn that I prefer to leave off the extra s. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this isn't a hard-and-fast rule; it's a style issue. Other style books such as Fowler's Modern English Usage recommend adding the apostrophe s to almost all singular words that end with s.* So our first tough issue—how to make words that end with s possessive—doesn't actually have an answer; it's a style issue and you can do it either way.
I always feel bad when the answer is that there isn't an answer, so here's an easier situation that has a firm rule: if the word ending with s is plural, such as aardvarks, then you just add an apostrophe at the end to make it possessive. For example, you could write, "The aardvarks' escape route [s apostrophe] was blocked" to indicate that a family of aardvarks needed to find another way out of danger.
Plural words that don't end with s, such as children, do take an apostrophe s at the end for possession. For example, you could write, "Fortunately, the children's room [children apostrophe s] had a hidden doorway."
Here's a tricky issue with a definite answer: how do you make the plural of a single letter, as in Mind your p's and q's? It's shocking, but you actually use the apostrophe before the s! It looks possessive, but it isn't. The apostrophe is just there to make it clear that you're writing about multiple p's and q's. The apostrophe is especially important when you are writing about a's, i's, and u's because without the apostrophe readers could easily think you are writing the words as, is, and us.
Finally, we'll end with another gray area. Brian in Toronto and a listener named Josh asked whether they should use apostrophes to make abbreviations plural. Brian gets irritated when he sees signs advertising CD's for sale with it written C-D-apostrophe-s. Gen wrote in about the same thing, feeling a sense of horror after seeing CD's written with an apostrophe in the New York Times. Although I share Brian and Gen's irritation and hate seeing it written that way, again, I have to admit that it's a style issue, and some books recommend putting in the apostrophe because it indicates that letters are missing**. It makes me want to let out a big “Hrumph” like Sir Fragalot, but that's the way it is.
Believe it or not, there are even more issues we can talk about related to apostrophes, but I'm afraid I'm going to overwhelm everyone so I'll save them for another day.