Sunday, 15 January 2012

Let's talk apostrophes

You may or may not know this but I used to teach grammar and punctuation for Plain English Campaign. Despite this, I'm not some rabid grammar-fascist who runs around supermarkets demanding that they change the signs to 'Five items or fewer' instead of the incorrect less. Nor do I cringe quite so often these days when I hear presenters on children's TV shows - the people who influence our kids' future language skills - using words and phrases that are simply wrong. I'm pretty mellow about it. Language constantly evolves and changes. Half a century ago, we were writing today as to-day. Now we don't. So the fact that people are using 'everyday' more and more is a sign that it will soon be the norm. Let me clarify that; everyday means common or humdrum as in 'everyday clothes'. It is different to every day, which means exactly what you'd imagine it does. The distinction is being quickly lost, just as uninterested and disinterested have become interchangeable despite the fact that they mean quite different things. But that's what happens with language; there's no point fighting inevitable change.

All of that aside, I do have a problem with bad use of punctuation. And it's not just because of arbitrary rules about right and wrong usage. It's about clarity. Punctuation exists to make our sentences clear and unambiguous. The written word enables us to pass on messages to people that we are not face-to-face with. The purpose of punctuation is to replace all of the little nuances - the inflections, the pauses, the emphases - that you'd get in real speech. For example, a single comma can completely change a message: 'It cost me £100 more than I expected' is a very different sentence to 'It cost me £100, more than I expected.' A hyphen will make clear the difference between re-sign and resign and re-cover and recover.

The apostrophe is the most abused of all the punctuation marks but that's because its use is taught so poorly. And, for many people growing up in the experimental 70s, punctuation and grammar was barely taught at all in schools. I'm also mindful that those of you with reading difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia cannot always make the distinction between correct and incorrect usage. However, as it's International Apostrophe Day, I thought I'd take the time to try to explain their use. If you already know all of this, please leave now or you'll spend the day with the taste of egg in your mouth. But, if you're unsure, here's a simple guide to correct usage.

Apostrophes have two uses: Contraction and Possession.

1. Contraction. Apostrophes are used to replace letters that are removed when two words are welded together. So pushing 'you' and 'are' together results in the word you're. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter 'a'. It's a very common mistake to see people writing your (belongs to you) instead of you're (you are). There is a big difference between your coat and you're freezing or your nuts (nuts belonging to you) and You're nuts (I fear for your mental stability).

Common contractions include they're (they are), we're (we are), I'm (I am) etc. But the most common is also the most troublesome. Let me make it clear that the ONLY time you ever use an apostrophe in the word it's is when it's short for 'It is'. So unless you can read it out loud as 'it is', the word should be spelled its.

2. Possession. In the olden days, it wasn't (was not) unusual to say sentences like Peter, his jacket to refer to a jacket belonging to Peter. And so, over time, contraction turned that into Peter's jacket and the same rule was used, irrespective of gender (I appreciate that that's a very simplified explanation and grammar historians will be wobbling in their boots. But I'm trying to keep this simple). We therefore use an apostrophe to show possession: Susan's husband, the dog's ball, the nation's grief. Even words that end in the letter 's' still get this treatment: the hippopotamus's tail, St James's Park, Venus Williams's tennis racket. Say them out loud and they sound right.

However, in one of those quirks of English grammar that proves that every rule has its exceptions, we don't use possessive apostrophes for impersonal possession. Let me make that clearer; it may be Peter's jacket but if he picks up his jacket (no use of proper name), it doesn't need an apostrophe. Similarly, we don't use apostrophes for the impersonal her, them, us or it. So we wouldn't use an apostrophe here: 'Etta dropped her ice cream while the cat licked its fur. Remember - unless the word you're writing is a contraction of 'it is' then it's spelled its.

Now we come to the most often confused use of apostrophes (no one said apostrophes were a piece of cake) when you get possession by more than one person or thing. Basically, we do the same for plural possession as we do for single possession; we add an apostrophe and an 's' e.g. the children's playground, the men's room. However, most plurals end with the letter 's' e.g. cats, dogs, windscreen wipers, cones etc. (It's worth stressing here that we don't use apostrophes in plurals and my mind grates when I see horrors like apple's, cat's or table's. Eek.). That means that adding an apostrophe and an extra 's' can make a word seem clumsy and overlong. The bedrooms of the royal princes now become the princes's rooms. The tiaras belonging to the princesses are even clumsier: the princesses's tiaras. Say them out loud and they don't sound right at all. So people tend to remove the final 's' when saying it. So that's what we do in writing too; we keep the apostrophe but lose the additional 's' so that it becomes the princes' rooms and the princesses' tiarasMother's love is the love of a single mother; mothers' love is the love of all mothers.

So there you have it. here's a quick recap:

1. An apostrophe is used to replace missing letters when two words have been pushed together e.g. can't (can not), they're (they are), isn't (is not).

2. The only time you ever use an apostrophe in the word it's is when it is a contraction of it is. e.g. It's (it is) okay to say that the dog wagged its tail. It's not right to say that the wombat jugged it's (it is??) favourite toys.

3. You show possession of something by adding an apostrophe and a letter 's' to the end of the name of the person or object doing the possessing e.g. the elephant's memory, Tom Jones's voice, Friday's meeting.

4. You show possession by more than one person or thing by doing the same e.g. the women's group, the mice's feet. However, because so many plurals end in 's', it can make the possessive plural sound clumsy so we add the apostrophe but leave off the additional 's' e.g. the bikers' foundation, the elephants' enclosure, the police officers' ball.

5. We DO NOT use apostrophes in plurals. EVER. So no more banana's, gerbil's or tree's please!

However ... I have noticed in the past few years that people are increasingly using apostrophes in plurals when the name of an object is an abbreviation made of letters and numbers e.g. DVD's, CD's, MP3's. etc. This is wrong as, abbreviations or not, they are still simple plurals so it should be DVDs CDs and MP3s. That said, certain phrases like Ps and Qs are easier to read when written as P's and Q's. As punctuation is all about clarity, maybe this will evolve to become correct usage?

That's the joy of language.

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