On the Back of the Apostrophe

In order to teach, you first have to learn. So in an effort to personally better understand the art of punctuation I offer this post on the apostrophe. Last Thursday I took a perfunctory look at comma usage based on the information gleaned from Lynne Truss’ wonderfully entertaining and informative book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The information that I am sharing today is also based on her book.

When the apostrophe first came into use in the 16th century it was mainly used to indicate omitted letters in a word. Today the apostrophe still shows where letters have been dropped but it also shoulders the responsibility of showing the possessive case, the plurals of words and letters among other job descriptions. We will try to touch on the most common ones here.  Again this is not intended as an exhaustive exploration of the apostrophe.

The Rule of Possessive Case of a Single Noun

To indicate “ownership” by a noun in a sentence an apostrophe is used followed by the letter s:

The old codger’s lethal cane

The young woman’s round posterior

The Rule of Indicating Time or Quantity

In just a month’s time

Two yards’ worth of silk

He gave three weeks’ notice

The Rule of Omitted Numbers in Dates

He was part of the Class of ’64.

The Rule of Omitted Letters

Everyone, I am fairly certain, is familiar and comfortable with the whole contractions thing.  “Isn’t” means “is not,” “didn’t” means “did not,” “I’ll” means “I will” and so on.

He’d’ve been all over her if she’d paid him a bit of notice (He would have been all over her if she had paid him a bit of notice—evidently drool dripping from his chin was not an enticing characteristic).

Contractions that no longer need the aid of an apostrophe are ones that have become accepted as words in their own right such as phone, fridge, photo or flu. The most confusion seems to revolve around “it’s” versus “its.”  The rule is simple. If you mean “it is” then use the contraction form with an apostrophe. If you are showing the possessive case of the word then you leave the apostrophe out.

It’s over on the windowsill. (It is over on the windowsill.)

Jealousy raised its ugly head. (Jealousy’s ugly head was raised.)

Ms. Truss puts us on notice: “If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

The Rule of Plurals of Letters and Words

An apostrophe s is employed when talking about a plural of a specific word or letter.

How many p’s are in swimming? (None, unless you are in the kiddie pool in which case you will find plenty)

There are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.

The Rule of the Possessive Form of Proper Names Ending in s

If your name is Nicholas, Chris, Doris or Lexis, what’s a person to do to show the possessive form? Do you add just the apostrophe or is it proper to amend the name with the apostrophe s combo?  Which is correct?

Is the correct to write: Nicholas’ expensive viola

Or is it preferred to write: Doris’s new Corvette

It seems that since I was a child that we were taught that if a name ends in “s” then you should use only the apostrophe as in the Nicholas example above.  Ms Truss says tastes have changed and so has the rule (for the most part). Today many of the respected punctuation guides state that modern day names requires an “s” to follow the apostrophe, as in the above Doris example, with a few exceptions (this is the English language, after all, so we have to have exceptions to the rules). The exceptions are: ancient names, names ending in an “iz” sound and when you are showing the possessive form of Jesus.

Achilles’ tendon (ancient name)

Lloyd Bridges’ chest hair (the “iz” sound)

Jesus’ walk in the garden of Gethsemane (the Jesus exception)

Ms Truss urges us not too get wrapped around the axle on this rule because there is still some dissension among the ranks, so quite frankly you can’t go wrong.  There are experts who still cling to the old apostrophe only rule. My advice would be to chose the style particularly comfortable to you, and stick with it. Consistency is the key here.

Thus brings my discussion on the hard working apostrophe to a close, and judging from the lack of interest in my previous post on the comma, it is probably with great relief on your part. I had thought of publishing posts on other parts of punctuation such as the semicolon, but I will refrain from any further discussions on punctuation unless there is an out pouring of requests for more.

Nonetheless, I recommend Lynne Truss’s book as a small gem of a resource on the art of punctuation.  It is an easy and entertaining read filled with interesting and essential bits of information.  She does a wonderful job of unraveling the tangle of rules that criss-cross the English language.  If you have any trepidation of wading into grammatical landscape, let Lynne Truss be your guide.

Photo: Thinkstock

5 comments on “On the Back of the Apostrophe

  1. I appreciate your refreshers on punctuation, and I learned something new. The apostrophe “rule of Indicating time or quantity” somehow fell through the cracks of my education.

  2. I now own a copy of that book! 🙂 Arrived over the weekend!

  3. I get so het up about the misuse of apostrophes. particularly it’s and its. Thank you for a very thorough but quick summary!

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