Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Apostrophe Catastrophes

by Annette Lyon

My latest editorial peeve: possessives that . . . aren't.

You know the kind of thing I'm talking about:

"Banana's were on sale."

"We visited the Smith's."

"How many book's have you read?"

ACK! Each of those are trying to be plural, meaning more than one. Try again:

Bananas

Smiths

Books

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Why no apostrophe? Because the bananas don't own anything. Neither do the group of people with Smith as their the last name. And what exactly do the books own? Nothing, at least, not in that sentence.

A lot of writers should have their apostrophe allotment removed, the way they abuse them. Plain old plural doesn't take one of those curly marks. You just add an S.

Instead, use apostrophes to show ownership:

Heather's

Josi's

Lu Ann's

If you want to discuss something the book possesses, then you'd say:

The book's cover is blue.

Or if the Smiths (there are several of them, so no apostrophe) own something, you could say:

The Smiths' car broke down.

Note that in this case, it's both plural (several people named Smith, such as an entire family) and possessive (they own the car). So you add the S and then the apostrophe.

Don't let possessive pronouns trip you up. Even though they're possessive, you never add an apostrophe. Of course, the only pronoun that ever really causes trouble in this area is ITS (being mistaken for its friend, IT'S, which means IT IS).

But you wouldn't say M'Y or HE'R or THEI'R, so you wouldn't say IT'S when you mean the thing owns something, as in, "the book and ITS ugly cover."

To keep it simple, I won't go into the debate about whether to add "es" to names for plurals when they already end with "s" (Dickens/Dickenses) or how you deal with possessives there (Dickens'/Dickenses'). That's another post.

For now, have mercy on your reader.

Ask yourself:

Do I mean more than one thing?
If yes, use JUST an S:
  • the books were stacked
  • the houses along the street
  • the Smiths came to the party
  • the tables were round

Do you mean the thing owns something else?

If yes, use an apostrophe and an S:
  • the book's publisher
  • the house's front yard
  • the Smiths' baby
  • the table's shape

Easy as pie. Or pies. Or as yummy as the pie's filling. Or something.

Just keep those apostrophes in check. Don't let them out of their cage unless they behave.

6 comments:

Kimberly said...

Nicely illustrated! I'm sure I'm guilty of misuse, but not gross misuse. Which means I can be all smug because there are people out there even more clueless than my clueless self.

Ryan said...

OK, so I'm always questioning myself with this one (or maybe this is totally unrelated ... I was never really good with English):

Hers, yours, ours.

ex. It's her's / it's hers
ex. Yours is better / your's is better.

If it's possessive, then it should be with an apostrophe, right?

I feel like there is a fundamental rule I'm totally missing here.

Annette Lyon said...

Ryan, Basic rule of thumb: If it's a regular possessive, use the apostrophe. If there's a pronoun involved, DON'T. So YOURS and HERS is correct.

angela michelle said...

There's a whole blog on wanton misuse of apostrophes. It has photos of crazy signs etc. You'd love it. But I can't remember what it's called!

Anna Maria Junus said...

For me, it's not a case of not knowing the rules, it's just a case of typing too fast and then not noticing even when I read the thing over 4 billion times. For some reason I put the stupid apostraphe in when I don't need it. I know I don't need it. But my fingers don't and then my eyes don't see.

Annette Lyon said...

Angela Michelle, Sounds like a blog I'd love! I found one the other day devoted to misused quote marks. It was hysterical.

Anna Maria, I have the same problem sometimes--fingers doing their own thing. You have to hope you WILL catch it when you proof it! (Or give it to someone else who will.)