Tag Archives: Grammar

Cuddle an apostrophe – they’re not scary!

12 Apr

I have a deep fondness for apostrophes.  Apart from their lovely cuddly shape (who wouldn’t want to hug an apostrophe?), they provide a wealth of useful information that makes it easy to understand what a writer means.

And the really good news about apostrophes is that there are only two ways to use them.  Yes, two!

The two basic uses* of apostrophes are:

  1. they indicate that a letter or letters are missing.  I was taught to think of them as a ‘gravestone’ to indicate where a letter was no more.  (It was the early 80s, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller was popular at the time)
  2. they show possession – that something ‘owns’ something else.
    • Possession is technically a grammatical concept, rather than referring literally to owning something else– but I think in the vast majority of cases, you can see that one thing does literally ‘own’ the other

The rules about possessive apostrophes vary between the US and the UK.

BRITISH ENGLISH

  • When it’s a singular noun that ends in any letter other than ‘s’, you add ‘s to the end of the noun  (the dog’s food)
  • When it’s a singular noun that ends in ‘s’, you add just an apostrophe to the end to the end of the noun (James’ telephone)
  • When it’s a plural noun that ends in ‘s’, you add just an apostrophe to the end of the noun (the dogs’ food)
  • When it’s a plural noun that ends in any other letter than ‘s’ (e.g. children / sheep / trout), you add ‘s to the end of the noun (the children’s playtime)

You never ever split the noun – so you have to decide whether the noun is singular or plural.

US ENGLISH

  • When it’s a singular noun, regardless of whether it ends in ‘s’ or not, , you add ‘s to the end of the noun  (the dog’s lead; James’s telephone)
  • When it’s a plural noun, regardless of whether it ends in s or not, you add ‘s to the end of the noun (the children’s playtime; the dogs’s food)

You never ever split the noun – so you have to decide whether the noun is singular or plural.

SECTION ONE: MISSING LETTERS

I’ll start with the nice easy one.

Apostrophes indicate missing letters.  Where we have really common sequences of words (I am / he can not ), we often run the words together, losing one or two letters along the way.  The apostrophe marks the fact letters are missing.

  • Don’t = do not  (the apostrophe is the ‘gravestone’ for the ‘o’ of not)
  • Isn’t = isn’t (again, the apostrophe is the missing ‘o’ of not)
  • Can’t = can not
  • Couldn’t
  • Wouldn’t
  • Shouldn’t
  • Won’t = will not
  • Shan’t = shall not
  • I’ll = I will
  • Should’ve = should have
  • He’s = He is
  • I’m = I am
  • They’re = They are
  • It’s = It is
  • Aren’t = are not
  • Where’s = where is
  • Here’s = here is

And many more!

These words are all known as contractions – where two longer words are contracted into one shorter one.

I know some people get taught that if you’re writing, you should never use contractions as they’re considered ‘informal’.  However, I think tastes have changed over time – and you’ll notice these contractions appear more and more, particularly in marketing where a brand wants to appear ‘friendly’.  I use them all the time when writing communications to make the writing seem more ‘human’.

SECTION TWO: POSSESSION

When one thing (noun) ‘owns’ or belongs to something else, we add ‘s to the end of the first noun to show the relationship (the first thing owns the second).

All these nouns are SINGULAR (refer to just one thing) and do not end in ‘s’

  • Alfie’s chew
  • The dog’s chew
  • The company’s annual results
  • The train’s passengers
  • The government’s economic theory
  • Rebecca’s country

Now you’ll see from the above that in most cases, the concept of possession is pretty straight-forward.  Alfie owns that chew. The company owns its own annual report.  But the train doesn’t literally own the passengers and Rebecca doesn’t literally own her country – so this is where the sense of ‘belongs to’ is helpful.

The main thing to note is that the ‘s goes at the end of the noun.  You must NEVER split the noun.

This is really straight-forward when it comes to singular nouns that end in any letter other than ‘s’.

POSSESSOR NOUN + ‘s +   POSSESSION NOUN

  • The chair’s cushions
  • The bottle’s lid
  • The BlackBerry’s charger

Singular nouns that end in ‘s’

There are a few singular nouns that end in ‘s’ – particularly proper nouns.  A proper noun is an official name – James, Ness, the Philippines, Paris and so forth.

Helpfully, there are two schools of thought here about what you should do.

In British English, typically if the noun already ends in ‘s’, you just add just an apostrophe at the end of the noun.

  • James’ book
  • Ness’ toy
  • The Philippines’ star player

In American English, it’s more common to stick to the original rule and add ‘s

  • James’s book
  • Ness’s toy
  • The Philippines’s star player

Where there are these differences of opinions, my recommendation is that you just have to pick the rule that works for you. I like the British English version – partly out of pure national bias, but mainly as I think it looks cleaner.

But again, the rule that you must NEVER split the noun applies.

So Jame’s book / the Philippine’s star player are both wrong.

Plural nouns ending in ‘s’

When we’re referring to more than one thing, we typically add ‘s’ to indicate that a word is plural.  We may change the ending of the word slightly – but generally, you can be pretty certain most plural nouns ends with ‘s’

  • Chews
  • Books
  • Trains
  • Companies
  • Toys
  • Players

Where you have a plural noun, the same rule that you must NEVER split the noun applies.

And again, the guidance is the same with singular nouns ending in ‘s’.  If you’re working in British English, you add an apostrophe at the end of the noun.  If it’s American English you prefer, you add ‘s.

So, in this case, my noun is PLAYERS (more than one player).   The entire noun is PLAYERS – and as I can’t split the noun (you NEVER split the noun), I add the apostrophe after the noun.

  • The players’ lack of commitment …  (or players’s lack of commitment if US English)
  • The managers’ performance guide … (or managers’s performance guide if US English)

If I were to split the noun (remember our noun is PLAYERS), Player’s lack of commitment means there is only one player, so changes the meaning completely.

* (In reference to the comment that there are two basic uses, from a historical perspective, the second rule evolved from the first, so some might argue there is actually only one rule.  When English was closer to its Germanic roots, we used to add an –es ending to the end of words to indicate possession, so the apostrophe does indeed indicate a missing letter in all instances.)

They’re, their and there.

4 Mar
The Reuben sandwich: Possibly invented in Omah...

Image via Wikipedia

OK, back to grammar.

Confusing ‘they’re’, ‘their’ and ‘there’ is also quite a common mistake I come across – and again, it’s just a matter of taking a deep breath, thinking about it and choosing the option you want.  Confusingly, all three are pronounced the same – although we use them quite differently.

1.         They’re = they are (or occasionally they were).

The apostrophe indicates that a letter is missing.

  • They’re a fantastic band – you should really go and see them.
  • I hate raw tomatoes – they’re evil!

2.         Their = belongs to them.

‘Their’ is a possessive pronoun, just like my, your, his, her and our – and you use it when you have a plural noun or sequence of singular nouns that ‘own’ something.  .

  • The astronauts lost their minds after spending too long on the spaceship.
  • Everyone on this team should play to their strengths.
  • Poppy, Denzil, and Smithy should make a point of calling their mother more often.

Lastly, and more complicated is …

3.   There = either indicates a place that’s different to where the speaker is OR indicates the existence of something

Using there to indicate a place

Where the speaker or writer is based is always referred to as ‘here’ – and if you want to indicate anywhere else, either a real place or somewhere abstract, you switch to there.

  • I’m here – but what are you doing over there?  (an abstract usage)
  • I’ve heard about the London Dungeon – it sounds really scary in there.  (referring to a real place)
  • There is a great sandwich shop next to the office.
  • Check over there for your glasses.

Using there to indicate existence

We also use there to indicate that something exists; there normally is followed by a conjugation of the verb to be (is, was, are, were)

  • There once was a lonely duckling
  • I’ve heard there’s a hard winter ahead of us
  • There are so many things to be happy about in life

So, to recap:

  • are you trying to say ‘they are’? –> if so, they’re
  • are you trying to say ‘belongs to them’ just as ‘my’ means ‘belongs to me’ –> if so, their
  • if you’re indicating place or existence –> there

My best tip is to try to rule out options 1 & 2, and then you know you’re on to a winner with option 3.