Grammar Moment: Possessives and contractions
I have lately been encountering many instances of apostrophe abuse, in which apostrophes are omitted where they belong and/or placed where they don’t belong – including on the blog of one of my respected colleagues. So here I am presenting a simplified guide to apostrophes.
First, we must observe that the primary uses of apostrophes are in possessives and contractions. There are a few other more obscure times you might need an apostrophe, but for the most part, you do not use them in plural nouns or present-tense verbs. So the most important thing is to be able to identify possessives and contractions.
There are two basic steps to figuring out whether an apostrophe is needed – I’ll get to the details in a moment:
- Figure out whether you have a possessive. If it is a possessive and it is NOT a pronoun, use the rules for making possessives.
- If what you have is NOT a possessive OR it is a pronoun, test it to find out whether it’s a contraction.
The key to something being a possessive is that A belongs to B. That makes B the word that you need to make into a possessive. Look at B: if it ends in s, you just add the apostrophe, nothing else. If it does NOT end in s, you add apostrophe + s.
Say you have a restroom that belongs to women. You look at the word women, and you can see that it doesn’t end in s. That means you add ’s:
Now, say you’re in a more upscale establishment, and the restroom belongs to ladies. Aha, ladies does end in s, so all you add is the apostrophe:
You will notice that this rule doesn’t care whether the noun is plural or not – the only test is whether it ends in s. Now, some grammar books will have more complicated rules (more on that later), and they might make more complicated distinctions about when to use ’s versus when to use just the apostrophe. But they will NEVER allow you to stick an apostrophe between letters of the existing word, whether it’s a plural like ladies, or a person’s name, like Ms. Byrnes.
Besides possessives, the other primary use of apostrophes is in contractions. In a contraction, letters have been left out, and often multiple words have been run together. The apostrophe goes to show where letters have been left out.
The test for a contraction is simple: You try to spell the word(s) out, and if the sentence makes sense, you have a contraction, so you use an apostrophe. If the sentence doesn’t make sense, you don’t have a contraction, so you don’t use an apostrophe. Try this one:
The kitten chased its/it’s tail.
Try spelling the word out:
The kitten chased it is tail.
That doesn’t work, so you know you don’t have a contraction. That means you don’t have an apostrophe:
The kitten chased its tail.
Here’s another one:
Its/It’s never too late to adopt a kitten.
It is never too late to adopt a kitten.
Yes! You can spell this one out, so it’s a contraction:
It’s never too late to adopt a kitten.
Here’s one more to try:
Cats/Cat’s are mysterious creatures.
Cat is are mysterious creatures.
Doesn’t work. This isn’t a contraction.
Cats are mysterious creatures.
Now, back to what I mentioned earlier about different grammar books having different rules. I like to keep things simple, and so this is the set of rules I have my students use. If you’re taking a class that involves writing, it will be important, especially for possessives, to find out what rules your instructor uses. For a writing class, you will usually have an assigned grammar text; if you’re taking a history or sociology class, you might need to ask your instructor what rule book he or she uses. Then get that book.
If your instructor doesn’t use a grammar text because he or she already “knows” all the rules, you have a couple of choices for how to proceed:
If the instructor has a reasonable sense of humor, get a grammar text that you find easy to use and that works well with the way you write. Then if the instructor calls you on a grammar issue, show her the part of the book that supports the way you did it.
If the instructor doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, take the comments that he wrote on your first couple of assignments and find a grammar book that generally agrees with those comments. Depending on the severity of the instructor’s lack of humor, you may then show him the book when he marks you for something, or you may just make a note in the margin of the book that Professor Gradgrind disagrees with this particular part, so you don’t make the same “mistake” again.