Punctuation step 3: why the apostrophe is your friend

Sad apostrophe. Punctuation. Thomas Editiing
She wants to be your friend


Discover why the hard-working apostrophe deserves some TLC 

Apostrophes are maligned and misused despite multi-tasking for us. We can’t make them study mindfulness, so a bit of effort is needed to master this code.

Why bother?  ‘Everyone gets apostrophes wrong,’ I hear you cry. Well, many people still expect you get them right – especially those deciding which service to trust.

A stray apostrophe breaks the punctuation code that we all subconsciously understand, and makes it harder for customers to understand your message.

A minority will laugh at you and assume that you’re ‘stupid’, before launching into a monologue about the death of the English language. Most others will have a sense that there’s something not quite right…

So, here goes.

Job one: Apostrophes show letters are missing, and make quotes lively.

  • It’s = it is
  • He’s = he is
  • They’re = they are
  • There’s = there is

Captain Brody looks out to sea worried from the deck of the Orca. From the film Jaws. Thomas EditingWe’re gonna need a bigger boat’ rolls off Captain Brody’s tongue in Jaws better than ‘We are going to need a bigger boat’

And to raise the tone a little, Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage…’ wouldn’t have worked as ‘All the world is a stage..’ (Jaques in Act II, Scene VII, As You Like It)

Job two: Teamed up with an S, they signify ownership of something that is then described.

  • The cat’s cute whiskers
  • The man’s smart trousers
  • The boys’ netball team
  • The commuters’ rage at delays on Southern…

(Check here for the details on singular and plural and some practical quizzes).

An exception to this rule is a type of word where we don’t need ‘s or s’: the personal pronoun.

(‘Your own, personal pronoun’ leaps into my head, sung to the tune of Depeche Mode’s Your Own, Personal Jesus. Whatever helps you remember)

Personal pronouns are:

  • his
  • hers
  • theirs
  • ours
  • yours
  • and
  • its

Unless trying to impersonate Gollum, would you write his’s, hers’s, theirs’s, our’s, yours’s ?

Nope? Well, my precious, in that case, you wouldn’t say its’s or ‘it’s’ either

Imagine a chair.

Think: ‘This is my chair. It has got legs’  

Bright pink armchair in a sitting room to illustrate Thomas Editing blogUse an apostrophe to shorten that statement: ‘This is my chair. It’s got legs’

Easy. The apostrophe contracts ‘it has’ into an informal ‘it’s’.

Give the chair some character by describing its colour.

‘This is my chair. Its legs are bright pink

Here ‘its’ is a separate, three-letter personal pronoun, which DOESN’T need an apostrophe.

Would you write: ‘His’s legs are bright pink after too long in the sun’ or  ‘Hi’s legs are bright pink…’ ?

Nope, you’d say ‘His legs are bright pink…’

RESIST the temptation to say: ‘It’s legs are bright pink’. That is the apostrophe doing its first job of denoting missing letters. Unpick the word and it becomes ‘It is legs are bright pink’, which doesn’t make sense.

Remember, your own personal pronoun doesn’t need an apostrophe. I think they’ve earned a rest.

Let me know if you need help!

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photo credit: sad apostrophe via photopin (license)

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