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During a recent road trip across southern Utah, I passed a store with the name Rumma'geI assume that the owner wanted to stand out from the crowd (which was pretty small to begin with) and dress up her store name to “Rumma’ge” instead of the dowdy “rummage.”  Unfortunately, her use of the apostrophe was laughable. 

Wherever you go, you see apostrophes used in painfully incorrect phrases, such as:

  • “Please wear shoe’s in the pool area.”       
  • “Visitor’s are kindly requested to sign the register.” 
  •  "Ask cashier for this weeks’ list.”

            

Why this compulsion to apostrophize?  Do people vaguely recall that an apostrophe sometimes goes before the ‘s’ -- so they pop them into words at random and hope they get it right?   That’s what the Rumma'ge lady did. These grammar gaffes make me grumpy. 

Okay, so when DO you use an apostrophe? 

*          To form a contraction. 

The apostrophe shows where a letter or letters have been omitted.  For example, instead of let us see, you could write, “let’s see. 

Watch out here, this gets tricky--- instead of it is, you could write it’s.

*The word its is not, repeat is not a contraction.  It is a possessive form of the word it.  Please remember to use it’s only when signifying a contraction between it and is.

 *          To show possession. 

Instead of having to write, “This shoe belongs to John,” we can write “John’s shoe.” Instead of saying, “Hey – I think that is the car that belongs to John!,” you can say, “Hey – I think that’s John’s car.” What a deal!

There is no grammatical basis for using an apostrophe-s ending to signify a plural.  One cat, two cats.  One shoe, two shoes.  Or if you want to get fancy, one company, two companies.”  But NEVER write shoe’s if what you mean is that there are two shoes. 

What if the word ends in s, and you want to show the possessive s?

This is a conundrum.  According to the Chicago Manual of Style, it is now proper to use the ‘s´ apostrophe just as if the word did not end in s.  Thus, you would have words like the princess’s tiara or the business’s quarterly report.  The stylebook goes on to say that using a simple apostrophe to signify a possessive is reserved exclusively for major cultural or religious figures.  This would leave us with words like Xerxes’ rule, or Jesus’ teaching or Moses’ law.  Of course, this opens the question of who decides whether a person is worthy of the simple apostrophe. (What about Saint Francis?)

 *          To show BOTH a plural and possession. 

If you have one cat, and the cat has a bowl, then you could write, “The cat’s bowl is in the kitchen.”

But suppose that your cat got out one night and visited some tomcat that didn’t even remember her name in the morning – and that now you have six cats.  First, you must buy a much bigger bowl.  Then you could write, “The cats’ bowl is in the kitchen.”  Many cats possess the bowl. We convey this by putting an ‘s apostrophe’ at the end of the word.

In brief:

  • Nouns that are plural have an extra  s.
  • Nouns that show possession possess an apostrophe followed by an s ('s).
  • Plural possessive nouns have the extra s followed by an apostrophe. (s')

 

I hope this lay’s to rest anyones lingering doubt's about apostrophe's.  Its simple! Apostrophes’ are only confusing when you don’t know whi'ch is whi'ch. 

 

Please email me the most galling apostrophe mistakes you have seen and remember to tell me what other writing errors gall you.

© 1999-2016 Elizabeth Danziger  All rights reserved.

 

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    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
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