Attacking Apostrophes: How Not to Overuse Them

Attack incorrect uses of Apostrophes in your manuscripts. Graphic created by Charles Huff.

Attack incorrect uses of Apostrophes in your manuscripts. Graphic created by Charles Huff.

Grammar rules for me are as boring as listening to a high school literature class read Shakespeare out loud. But a professional reading is enthralling. Well, I’m enthralled by a little booklet by my friend Joyce Ellis, whom I consider the Queen of Grammar rules, as an excellent reference for obvious grammar faux pas. 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar: lessons for authors on the snags of the English language. This little booklet contains eight simple things to train your eyes to notice when you self-edit. Things publishers find all too often in novice work.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from her little booklet with my own commentary. (You knew I would.)

Apostrophe abuse

1)  This first one can be confusing. An apostrophe takes on three distinct functions. For those who have brain block an apostrophe looks like this: ’. This little mark wreaks havoc in lots of manuscripts.

Go through your manuscript and examine every use of the apostrophe. Did you place one with every word ending in s? Caught you, didn’t I? I am convinced my word program adds them. Really! But I’ll admit I’ve done it myself. My subconscious mind types away and ta-da lots of apostrophes.

As I mentioned, there are three times an apostrophe is used. I’m going to quote Joyce Ellis now.

Possessives: expressions indicating that something belongs to someone or something else require an ’s at the end of the word.

The book proposal failed to include the author’s credentials.

This seems simple enough. But Joyce points out the most common mistake, and I swear it’s my word program. The use of apostrophes with possessives of pronouns. Words like theirs, ours, hers, and the biggest error its.

The car lost its wheel (no apostrophe) on its way to the repair shop.

Great example, Joyce.

2) The second correct use of an apostrophe is in contractions. In shortened versions of words (cannot to can’t) or two words (I’m for I am), an apostrophe substituted for missing letters. Note the especially troublesome it’s.

Joyce writes. “It’s (it is) important to remember to use the apostrophe only if it’s a contraction of it is.”

Tip from me: If you are in doubt, read the sentence substituting the words it is or it has.

The dog buried its bone. Read out loud: The dog buried it is bone. Wrong! No apostrophe.

It’s time to go to bed. Read out loud: It is time to go to bed. Right. Apostrophe needed.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other.

It has been a long time since we have seen each other.

3) The final use of an apostrophe with more examples from Joyce.

Other omitted material: parts of a word or expression omitted. (e.g., dialog or dates) call for an apostrophe: ’cause for because or ’70s for 1970s. Great reminder Joyce.

I find numbers confusing. How often do you see a temperature written as a possessive? 80s is correct. While 80’s is not.

How about family names.

We are the Huffs not the Huff’s. (A group not something the group owns.)

The Huffs’ house is on Main Street. (The house belongs to the family.)

Huff’s fast pitch whizzed by the catch. (The pitch belongs to Huff.)

Joyce’s bottom line: Don’t use apostrophes for plurals.

Now go forth and check your latest writing project. How well did you avoid the hazard of apostrophe abuse?

Hope this helps. Next post I will share Joyce’s second hazard weak verbs.

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