Once upon a time, a friend of mine used to carry a dark permanent marker in her capacious, overflowing purse that had one purpose and one purpose only. No matter where they appeared or on what, this was her mission: to eradicate any and all erroneously-placed apostrophes with which she came into contact. Sometimes she had trouble finding pens or datebook or the like, but she always knew where that marker was and she never hesitated to use it.
True story. She was so dedicated to her cause that she was almost an apostrophe vigilante, and woe betide the person(s) who argued with her right to correct any miscreant little squiggles. No one could ever win, though, because she knew her apostrophes and she knew she did.
Those innocent little vertical punctuation marks drive everyone crazy, but the difference a correctly-placed apostrophe makes can be important. So let’s go a few rounds with my friend and see if she’d need her permanent marker for our own writing!
The 1960’s was a decadent decade. The 1960s was a decadent decade.
Turn left at the Knapps’ house. Turn left at the Knapp’s house.
Please bring in the plants tonight! Please bring in the plant’s tonight!
There are more examples below, but this is a good start. I have no doubt all readers and writers are quick to note that the top right example, the second on the left and the third on the left are the correct ways to use – or not use – apostrophes in these specific instances.
If one uses an apostrophe in a date, as well as the third example on the right, the apostrophe denotes ownership. So you might ask yourself as you write, ‘the 1960’s … what? What did they own?’ The same thing with the plant example: if we write ‘bring in the plant’s …’ an editor will (or should) say ‘bring in the plant’s what? The plant’s dirt? Bugs?’ In this case too, the apostrophe indicates a single plant; the correct example on the left obviously shows there are more plants than one.
One of the examples in the middle is much too prevalent in today’s writing world. Again we’ve got an issue of ownership, which in this case is correct to connote; at the same time there’s the singular/plural agreement and punctuation to deal with. What to do, what to do?
Easy answer: if there is more than one person, the apostrophe almost always goes after the ‘s’. Otherwise you’d turn left at ‘that (singular) old Knapp’s house.’ He or she may be singular in many ways, but a punctuation problem shouldn’t be one of them. If there are two or more Knapps and we need to indicate ownership, then the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ and should never separate them. Of course you can take the easy way out and write “Turn left at the Knapp residence.”
(Notice there is no apostrophe in my latter use of Knapps. The same holds true if I write of my own family with no need to indicate ownership: The Rayners are the nicest people in the world. They’re almost as nice as the Smiths. Whether you agree with that assertion or not, none of those three family groups needs an apostrophe when mentioned as a whole.)
Here are some real-life examples (I made up those other ones based on usages I’ve seen), so get out your own editor’s red pen or blue pencil – or maybe even a permanent marker – and give my friend a run for her money. Some of the following are correct, some are not. See how you do and then check your answers with those at the bottom.
From Yahoo! news headlines:
1) Italian police seize mafia boss’ pet crocodile.
2) White House threat to kids’ summer vacation.
A newspaper classified ad:
3) Looking for kids motorcycle gear.
4) Body of heiress’ likely found in river.
5) Farmers’ market seeks new manager.
6) Vermont earns straight [financial] A’s.
From a newspaper story:
7) … [A] friend of Ellis’ family … was blunter in his observations.
Since that was so much fun – well, it is for editors and apostrophe vigilantes :-)! – try this one.
Its too hard to keep up with you’re neighbors, the Jones’.
The three apostrophe mistakes in that sentence (which I made up) should be readily apparent. Change that sentence to read It’s too hard to keep up with your neighbors, the Joneses, and you’ll have happier readers and a happier editor.
Why the differences?
It’s is a contraction for ‘it is.’ If we write ‘its’ with no apostrophe, there is no meaning in this particular sentence. ‘Its’ with no apostrophe fits with such things as “the car lost its brakes” or “the plant stand looks better in its original color.” I know – technically these are ownership concepts, but inanimate objects don’t (usually) own anything, so there is no apostrophe. When in doubt, always write the sentence both ways: with and without a contraction and use the one that makes sense.
In the correct sentence, your is not a contraction so there is no apostrophe. If you put the apostrophe in – which is a common mistake with this one – the word will mean ‘you are.’ It doesn’t make much sense in the sentence then. Do the contraction trick here, too: Does it make sense to say ‘It’s too hard to keep up with you are neighbors the Joneses’?
And the Joneses? Because their name already ends in an ‘s,’ the apostrophe is superfluous and not needed. If we have to give directions to their house instead of the Knapps’ house, we write “Turn left at the Joneses’ house.”
Now that you’re thoroughly confused, I want to note that my word processing program is too. Which brings up a good point: don’t always trust those red, blue, and green alert lines! They do bring things to your attention, but they’re not always right. When I wrote Knapps’ house above, the invisible grammar police inside my program indicate that’s wrong. Trust me instead: it’s not.
They’re tiny and they’re tricky, but those little apostrophes pack a big punch. We can’t hear or see them when we speak; the differences they make in our writing, though, are important. We owe it to our readers to get those little devils right. And just think: if your writing is destined for submission and uses apostrophes correctly, your work will rise faster to the top of that pile on your potential editor’s desk!
1) This should read Italian police seize mafia boss’s pet crocodile.
2) This is correct.
3) That person should look for kids’ motorcycle gear or rewrite it to read Looking for motorcycle gear for kids.
4) No apostrophe is necessary as this is written. If the copy editor is determined to include an apostrophe, then the headline should read Heiress’s body likely found in river.
5) This is correct for the same reason #2 is right: plural farmers’ apostrophes work the same as plural kids’ do.
6) Vermont’s financial grade is better than the paper’s editing grade: there should be no apostrophe after the A.
7) Like the mafia boss and the heiress, this should have an ‘s’ after the apostrophe so it reads A friend of Ellis’s family …
©Eugenie Rounds Rayner 2009 (This first appeared in the ViciousWriters.com ezine)