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The pesky apostrophe

Today’s column is dedicated to a grammar error which causes a great deal of irritation for those who know the rule governing standard usage and don’t like to see the misuse. 

Would that the only consequence of the misuse were irritation! It is important to understand this error because it greatly detracts from the quality of one’s writing and creates the perception that one is not familiar with basic rules of punctuation. The reality is that some people will take a piece of writing with grammar errors less seriously.

Now, it is vital for readers of the column to remember grammar rules are not to be used as sticks with which to whack others nor should they be used to shame people or make them feel stupid. The purpose of this column is to draw attention to the misuse and so those who are misusing the form may receive a gentle nudge that will enable them to acquire the correct form in order to help them be better writers.

Many of you have probably noticed a growing tendency for people to add an apostrophe to nouns to mark the plural form of the noun and not possession. Here are some examples of the misuse: “Attention Shopper’s. Bring your little Trick or Treater’s in this Halloween.” “All item’s half off.” “We cannot see any patient’s at this time.” “The actor’s cast in this production are experienced.” “We have colorful top’s for pants.”

In each of the examples above the use of the apostrophe is incorrect because none of the nouns are possessive. It’s fine to say “the shopper’s destination” or “the item’s price” because the words with apostrophes show possession of the following noun. When a noun is possessive, it is possible to rewrite the phrase with the preposition “of” as in “the destination of the shopper” and “the price of the item.” In the case of a plural noun which shows possession, the apostrophe is written at the end of the word as in “the shoppers’ favorite store.” However, a plural noun which does not show possession should not have an apostrophe.

This is a grammar error which only appears in writing. In speech, the examples of misuse would not present a problem. One can understand how this can be confusing especially with the possessive adjective its and it’s, the contraction of the phrase “it is.” While possessive, the former has no apostrophe “The trees dropped its acorns in vast quantities,” while the latter must have an apostrophe to show that the verb form “is” has been contracted as in “It’s a shoppers’ paradise.” If you have trouble with this distinction, a good way to self-check is to see if your sentence still makes sense if you reword it to say “it is.”

So why are people making this error? My answer is that at least part of the explanation is  people tend to read less standard English than they used to. One of the best ways to reinforce the rules of standard language is by reading extensively. Also, the use of text messaging and other forms of rapid written communication are less formal and are more likely to permit variant spellings and structures. Be on the lookout for examples of misused apostrophes and feel free to send in examples.

Quiz

1. The cats/cat’s owner carried all of its/it’s kittens from the garage into the house.

2. Its/It’s important for the clubs/club’s members/member’s to honor its/it’s rules.

3. What are the plural forms of mother-in-law and hole-in-one?

4. How do you form the possessive of mother-in-law and hole-in-one?

(Answers: 1. The cat’s owner carried all of its kittens from the garage into the house. 2. It’s important for the club’s members to honor its rules. 3. mothers-in-law and holes-in-one for the plural forms; 4. mother-in-law’s and hole-in-one’s are the singular possessive forms.)

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.