Apoplectic Over Apostrophes
Recently I embarked upon a rant. It was not a particularly unique rant, at least not to me. It is a rant I have ranted plenty of times before, and no doubt it is a rant I will enjoy again. “Enjoy” is a dubious term to apply to this rant, however. I would like nothing more than to see the need for this particular rant to die a natural death because it is corrected and I never see its glaring existence ever again.
I have a pet peeve. My peeve has to do with written language. Most specifically, my peeve has to do with the written language of English in public places, or in a professional context.
I am not talking about IM conversations, emails, comments to blogs, or similar informal communications, where careless errors go uncorrected and largely unheeded. I can and do ignore grammatical and punctuation errors in that context. I make them myself. They are no big deal. These are informal, usually quick communications and typos and errors are common and tolerable. They fall in the category of “shit happens.”
What bothers me is incorrectly used written language that appears in advertising or in documents that should have been proofread before publication. Professionally written language intended to sell something to a targeted audience, or professionally written language meant for public consumption should be correctly written. If the words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages are written with forethought, presumably they are intended to convey correct information. Glaring errors in such written language are distracting at best and leave a poor impression at worst.
It comes down to this:
Yes, I’m on a tear against the misplaced apostrophe again.
If anyone out there is interested in seducing me, here is my notion of a dream guy: he will have a truck with a cherry-picker ladder, and will drive me around town in it. When we see a billboard or marquee with a misplaced apostrophe, he will position the truck just so and I will climb the ladder to the offending punctuation mark, dip my wide paintbrush into the bucket of red paint he is holding, and correct the error. We will do it in the dark of night and the world will awake to corrected apostrophes. Oh, the joy! Oh, the bliss! I’m getting all tingly just thinking about it!
Nothing looks so forlorn to me as an apostrophe hooked to something to which it should not be, or treacherously hung somewhere it just does not belong. The apostrophe seems to befuddle a large segment of the writing population. As a public service, I hereby offer a primer on apostrophes.
Pay attention, class. (You! In the back! Spit out that gum!)
Apostrophes are used in several contexts. In certain very limited circumstances they are used to make plural forms of words. They are used to make contractions of two words into one. Most frequently in formal writing, apostrophes are used to show possessiveness.
Apostrophes do not make a word plural. Ever. If you mean to indicate more than one of a person, place or thing, just add s or es to the word:
Sometimes we see numbers with apostrophes. Some sources approve this style, but the better practice is to avoid it.
The MLA Handbook, which is the Bible of American punctuation, instructs us not to add apostrophes to pluralize even numbers written numerically:
Olga Korbut scored unprecedented 10s from the gymnastics judges.
Music during the 1990s was unremarkable for the most part.
When the number is spelled out as a word, it is made plural just like any other word. Add only the letter s with no apostrophe:
She was dressed to the nines.
Throughout the nineties I listened to classical rock most often.
Even if it is the plural of an acronym or abbreviation, do not use the apostrophe to make a plural:
Both of us have IRAs.
He has PhDs in both English and Philosophy.
Please return the DVDs to Blockbuster.
This rule having been fully explained, I shall now confuse you by telling you that there are some authorities which say that using an apostrophe to make the plural of letters or numbers, as well as words referred to as words in the context of the sentence, is acceptable. Both formats are correct, so long as the writer is consistent.
There are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Shakespeare wrote plays during the 1500’s and 1600’s.
Shakespeare wrote plays during the 1500s and 1600s.
Those size 14’s make his feet look like longboats.
Those size 14s make his feet look like longboats.
Jack had three C’s on his report card.
Jack had three Cs on his report card.
The bottom line is that no matter which method you use, be consistent. It just looks silly when we read, “Be sure to cross your Ts and dot your I’s.” The do’s and don’t’s of this alternately acceptable form might be confusing, I know, so a good rule of thumb might be:
When in doubt, leave the apostrophe out.
We can get the contraction rule out of the way quickly since, with one tiny exception, most of us don’t have a problem with it. The apostrophe takes the place of one or more dropped letters and the spaces between them. Thus, cannot becomes can’t and you are becomes you’re. Likewise, you all becomes y’all.
By the way, despite some uninformed pontifications to the contrary, y’all is NEVER singular. It is ALWAYS plural. Even if I only address you individually when I say “I hope y’all are managing to stay cool in this miserable summer heat,” what I am really saying is that I hope you and your associates and loved ones have air conditioning. You all is plural, and so is y’all. If a Southerner ever says y’all in a context that you think is singular, verify this. I will bet my Arkansas driver’s license that the Southerner will tell you he or she meant y’all in the plural form.
If the speaker is not Southern, his or her usage is suspect. This is one of the things we native Southerners groan about when we hear poorly imitated Southern accents on television or in the movies. In addition to the fact that non-Southerners just plain don’t pronounce the words right, the blatant misuse of y’all ruins the whole attempt at mimicking a Southern accent. Vivien Leigh managed it beautifully as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Val Kilmer, as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, did not.
One contraction causes mass confusion. It really should not, because it follows the exact same rule as all others: the apostrophe substitutes for dropped letters. It’s is the contraction for “it is” or “it has.” The possessive of the word it does not have an apostrophe. And this is the perfect segue into possessives, where apostrophes are most frequently used.
Personal pronouns are the pronouns that take the place of a person or the name of something. They NEVER get apostrophes. Personal pronouns are the words mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs, and its. That’s right: its (with no apostrophe) denotes possessiveness.
You don’t see mine’s, your’s, her’s, hi’s, our’s, or their’s. Written that way they don’t even look right, now do they? Personal pronouns never get apostrophes. They do not want them. They are apostrophe-deprived and they like it that way. Unlike nouns that don’t have people associated with them, personal pronouns are apostrophe snobs. Don’t ever give a personal pronoun, even an it, an apostrophe. You will be ridiculed and scorned by personal pronouns everywhere if you violate this rule.
Other than the personal pronouns mine, his, hers, yours, ours, its, and theirs, possessiveness is indicated by – you guessed it – an apostrophe followed by the letter s.
Anne’s blog (the blog of Anne)
Wench’s Virgin Training School (the Virgin Training School run by Wench)
Aramink’s location (the location of Aramink)
If you can rephrase to say the x of y, then y’s x will need the apostrophe. It’s fine to talk to yourself while writing to double-check this. I promise. Practice it. As I explain the apostrophe rule further, I will show you how it’s done. (See how I just used the contraction it’s with proper placement of the apostrophe? Applaud me!)
When the noun having possession is singular, meaning that there is only one of that particular thing, the apostrophe followed by the letter s is an absolute, unbreakable, indefatigable rule. Always, always, always add an apostrophe and an s to indicate that the noun has something it otherwise would not.
One week’s time (the duration of one week)
One mile’s distance (the distance of one mile)
The pencil’s lead (the lead of the pencil)
The girl’s shoe (the shoe belonging to the girl)
Bee’s multiple personalities (each and every one of those delightful personalities that make Bee so much fun)
If you can rephrase the phrase as one thing of another, you have a situation on your hands in which you should use an apostrophe.
This is true even when the singular noun ends in the letter s. That’s right: add the apostrophe and the s even if the word ends in s, so long as the word is singular and not plural:
The goddess’s nectar and ambrosia (the nectar and ambrosia belonging to the goddess)
The princess’s jeweled tiara (the costly diadem of the princess)
The Dread Pirate Roberts’s ship (the ship upon which Westley sailed to make his fortune before returning to rescue Buttercup from the clutches of mad Prince Humperdick and the evil six-fingered Count Rugen, who killed Inigo Montoya’s father and should now prepare to die)
If the possessing noun is a plural, and ends in s, just add an apostrophe. The s is already there. The apostrophe does not separate the s that creates the plural from the rest of the word.
The dogs’ collars (the collars of the dogs)
The boys’ ball (the ball belonging to the boys)
Two weeks’ notice (notice of two weeks before leaving one job for another)
Five years’ duration (the eternity of some marriages)
The horses’ watering trough (the watering trough of the horses)
The twelve dancing princesses’ tattered slippers (remember that fairy tale?)
However, if the possessing plural noun does not end in the letter s the apostrophe and – you guessed it – the s is needed:
And now I would like to have a word on the plural possessive of certain proper names. When a proper name ends in an s, and there are more than one of these proper names indicated in the context, the name is pluralized by adding es the same was other nouns ending in s are made plural. It is made possessive by adding just an apostrophe, the same as other plural nouns ending in s.
Here is an example of a proper noun ending in s in its singular form: “Bridget Jones’s diary was found on the coffee table.” The sentence means that the diary of one Ms. Jones was found in a scandalously public place. Please note that the diary is not of Bridget Jone, so the s remains on Jones and an apostrophe and another s is added to make the possessive.
When the name Jones is made plural, just as with any other noun ending in s, we add es. We then add an apostrophe but no additional extra s to indicate the possessive.
The Joneses live here. (Bridget’s mum and dad reside in this house)
The blue cottage is the Joneses’ vacation getaway. (That little house belongs to the entire Jones family.)
Welcome to the Joneses’ beach house. (All of the members of the Jones family welcome you)
Honestly, it makes me crazy when I see personalized items in catalogs that misplace apostrophes. Not only does the catalog not have the punctuation right, it is hawking incorrect punctuation to annoy others. In ignorance, an uninformed buyer will order the offending misplaced apostrophe and and display it proudly and publicly.
I cringe when I see signs like these:
Welcome to the Jones’s Yacht
Jone’s Bar and Grill
This is the Jones’es Party Barge
I beg you, don’t let these glaring errors happen to you.
If anyone has any questions as to the proper placement of apostrophes, or exceptions to the rules I may not have listed, please ask. I’ll be glad to enlighten you. If you think I’m wrong about something, feel free to say so. I’ll look up the answer and if I have erred, I will issue a correction.
Now, go ye forth and mis-apostrophize no more.
Alward, Edgar C. & Jean A. Alward. Punctuation Plain & Simple. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997.
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th Ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 2003.
Roberts, William H. The Writer’s Companion: A Short Handbook. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985.
Strunk, William, Jr. & E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Ed. New York: Longman, 2000.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2004.
For those of you who are curious, I do indeed own all of these books, and yes, I refer to them regularly. For a highly entertaining book about proper punctuation, I can’t recommend Lynne Truss’s book highly enough. It’s a fun read despite what really ought to be a dull topic. Get it. Really.