by Cherie Tucker
Because St. Patrick’s Day is approaching, I thought we could use a little review of apostrophes. Remember, apostrophes stand in for missing letters. If you change I am to I’m, the apostrophe holds the place of the letter a. That’s easy to see. I will becomes I’ll, with the apostrophe standing in for two letters, wi. But some are not so obvious.
Can you tell what letter the apostrophe stands for in the “dog’s” dish? For that one we have to go back to Ye Olde Days of Middle English. To show possession or ownership in those days, a writer would add “es” to the noun, making it “the doges dish.” As time wore on, the apostrophe stood in for that pesky e to show ownership, as it still does today.
For singular possession (belonging to one thing or person) = ’s
For plural possession (belonging to more than one thing jointly) = s’
The quickest way to determine if you need that possessive apostrophe, say “of the” to yourself. So “the dog’s dish” would be the dish of the dog. If all your dogs shared one dish, it would be the dish of the dogs and be written “the dogs’ dish.” These clever marks tell your readers what you mean, so they don’t have to guess or get it wrong.
St. Patrick’s Day is the day “of the” saint named Patrick. New Year’s Day is the first day “of the” New Year. Hallmark has made the days that we honor our parents into days that honor the concept “of the” Mother and the Father. Consequently they are written Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, since their concept is singular.
There are some common apostrophe stumbles that people seem to be falling into now. The first one is its vs. it’s. Read this out loud:
If there is an apostrophe in it’s, it stands for It is. Always. No exceptions.
Next, do not use the apostrophe with an s to make a word plural, as seems to happen on Facebook, holiday greeting cards, and house signs. “Happy Holidays from the Smith’s” begs the question “the Smith’s what?” and you wonder what they left out. If the house sign says The Smith’s, it means one person lives there who calls himself The Smith and wants you to know it’s his house. If, on the other hand, the Smith family lives there, all they need on their sign is: The Smiths.
Apostrophes are small, but they do heavy lifting to make your writing mean what you intend. Use them properly and prosper.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.