Friday, December 18, 2009

LITERARY LAPSES 101, Part 4--Apostrophes



It seems like nearly everyone gets confused about apostrophes now and then. Even though we all 'learned' about their proper use back in elementary school, there often hasn't been a refresher course since then. For many of us, let's admit it, that was an eon ago.

Basically, with a few exceptions, apostrophes have two uses. 1) They are used in contractions to replace the letters that have been removed. 2) They are used for the possessive form of NOUNS (not pronouns). Let's look at the two main uses first, then a bit about exceptions that are fairly common.

1) Contractions. The main difficulty here is just where to put the apostrophe, and sometimes then how to spell the rest of the word. Apostrophes replace letters that have been removed. Can not becomes can't--the ' replace no. She will = she'll. It's = it is. In poetic language, we get 'tis for it is and o'er for over. There are a few contractions that mess with normal spelling ( one thing you can count on in English is an exception to every rule) like won't for will not. Of course, there's the curious case of ain't which seems to replace just about any negative to be verb in nonstandard English. Contractions come in quite handy for writing dialect: somethin', 'cause (because), s'up? (what's up--contraction of a contraction), gov'nor, ha'penny, 'ere now!, 'at's right...

   Special contractions to note: Ma'am--this is really a contraction of Madam
                                              Y'all-- If I had a nickel for every time I saw this one mangled! It means YOU
                                                         ALL, so the ' replaces ou in you

2) Possessives of Nouns. Placement is again part of the confusion. It mainly depends on if the noun is plural or singular.
     Singular (and plurals that don't end with s)--write the word followed by 's: the boy's hat; John's mother; the dog's bone; the children's homework; the men's  bathroom
     Plural with final s--the ' comes after the s: the dogs' food; The Smiths' car; the girls' laughter; my cats' meows.

  This is for possessive of NOUNS, not pronouns. Therefore, it's means it is and not belonging to it. HOWEVER . . . a few exceptions, as always, for some indefinite pronouns:
   anyone's guess; everyone's business; somebody's fault; one's best

Important: Apostrophes are NOT used to make plurals. . . Usually...
Many of us are under the mistaken idea that we need an apostrophe to form the plural for letters or numbers. Actually, this is an old style that is out of favor now (see grammar.about.com  and Write Express ) Most of the time those plurals are like all the others: PhDs; CDs; your Gs look like Js; there are too many 4s in that zip code; Heather was born in the 1990s.
EXCEPTION: if the meaning might be otherwise unclear. Remember to dot your i's--if you write is, it looks like the verb. The 0's are smudged. Here it means zeroes, but without the apostrophe could be confused for capital Os. AND for certain phrases and clich├ęs: watch your p's and q's (confusion for ps); no if's, and's or but's (I don't know the reasoning behind that one).

Is this helpful or more confusing? I hope it serves as a quick refresher and useful guide.

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