Occasionally, my friends ask me questions about the rules of grammar. I seem to have become known as the Grammar Police, which, frankly, I’m proud of. I think I should have a taser. Good grammar is important. It matters.
The other day, over a cup of VERY nice hot chocolate, a friend asked me about the intricacies of the humble apostrophe. So I’ve put together a quick and dirty guide to the curly little critters.
It’s really very simple
No, really, it is. And here’s the simplest piece of advice of all: if you’re in doubt, leave the apostrophe out! It’s far less likely to enrage those of us who love the humble apostrophe if you leave it out, than if you pu’t one in a’ny old wh’ere. See? It makes it look like you’ve got a cough.
There are really only two situations that require the use of an apostrophe.
Apostrophes are used to denote possession. That is, to show that something belongs to something else.
Peter’s pickles were well and truly squashed.
The octopus’s motorcar was a little shabby around the edges.
Watch out for plural possessives, though. If the word is pluralised by adding an “s” to the end, the apostrophe goes after the “s”. If the word is already a plural, it takes an apostrophe-s as usual.
The cats’ hairy feet had little pink paws which left dirty little footprints all over the tiled floor.
The women’s appalling taste in hats was causing some consternation among the upper echelons of Warwick society.
Here’s a little trick to try: if you can rearrange the sentence using the word ‘of’, you probably need an apostrophe. You can change
Peter’s pickles were well and truly squashed
The pickles of Peter were well and truly squashed.
If you’ve missed some letters out, you can use an apostrophe. I did it just over there, see? Here are some examples:
I cannot believe that people cannot believe it is not butter
I can’t believe that people can’t believe it’s not butter.
The elephant will not fit in the bureau
The elephant won’t fit in the bureau.
He does not like cheese because he is weird
He doesn’t like cheese because he’s weird.
And so on, and so on. You get the idea. But if you’re not sure, please ask me!
Don’t do it. Step away from the apostrophe. You heard me. STEP AWAY. It is never acceptable to use an apostrophe to denote a plural. Doing so makes you look illiterate. It’s ugly, annoying, and there is simply no need. This is a rule that is simple and absolute. If it’s plural, don’t bring out the apostrophes. It’ll be a catastrophe.
“Orange’s for sale.” Orange’s what is for sale? Don’t leave me hanging on tenterhooks, for goodness’ sake!
A few common mistakes
The misuse of the following words enrages me. I don’t know why. It just does.
Your and you’re are two different words.
- “Your” denotes possession. Your cat. Your shoes. Your car.
- “You’re” is short for “you are”.
There, their and they’re are three different words. They are not interchangeable.
- “There” is a demonstrative pronoun: “There is your cheese, on the table.”
- “Their” is a possessive pronoun: “Their cats were extraordinarily cute.”
- “They’re” is a contraction of “they are”: “They’re abusing apostrophes again. Fetch me the flamethrower.”
Its and it’s. Okay, I’ll admit that there is a reasonable reason for getting this wrong. I’ve already explained that you need an apostrophe to show possession. Except when you’re referring to an undefined ‘it’.
- “Its” denotes possession: “The cat played with its tail.”
- “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”: “It’s raining outside, which shouldn’t surprise me because this is Britain.”
I love The Oatmeal. They’ve done a little apostrophe poster. It’s delightful (except for the fact that they’re wrong about the numbers).
Get it? Got it? Good.