Monday, April 1, 2013

GrammatiCats: Apostrophes

Ah, the apostrophe.  The mistletoe of sentences.  It dangles from the invisible ceiling of our words, spurring our letters to casual, spontaneous intimacy.  What would we do without it?

Well, we'd probably spend a lot less time wondering whether it goes before the dang S or after.  So let's take a quick minute to clear things up.

Pinkie Rating: 2

What can you do with an apostrophe?

A whole mess of things!  Let's get the easier ones out of the way first.

1.  Omit letters.  This could be in the form of a contraction, as when "can not" becomes "can't",

I can't help but notice you're on my stairs.

or a casual dropping of letters, as is often seen in dialect.

Yep.  I reckon that's the whole secret to life.  Singin', guitar-pickin', and lickin' yourself.

2.  Transliterate non-English words or names.  When writing certain other languages using the English alphabet, the apostrophe is sometimes used to divide syllables or letters to ensure correct pronunciation.

Bar'gan wan-chee kohspah, Jedi.  Ho ho ho!

3.  Omit numbers.  This works just like omitting letters: the apostrophe is used to show where the numbers were dropped. 

NOTE:  Speaking of numbers, you will sometimes see letters (MFA's and PhD's), numbers (20's and 30's), and symbols (#'s and @'s) made plural with an apostrophe. Many sources, including the Chicago Manual of Style, would have you use the apostrophe only when there would otherwise be a chance of misreading the word.  (For example, in the sentence, I's in that column are incomplete assignments, you might misread the beginning as Is in that... if you didn't have the apostrophe for clarity.)

4.  Show possession.

This is the one that trips most of us up, so let's stand on it for a minute. Possession, in addition to being 9/10ths of the law, is used to show ownership.  For example,

Hey - I don't want to hurt your butt's feelings, but could you move it already?

In this case, the feelings belong to the butt.  'Butt' is singular (there's only one), so we indicate possession with an apostrophe and an S.

Chuck Norris's fist.
The sun's fury.
Humanity's loss.

But what do we do otherwise?

Hey, guys - I don't want to hurt your butts' feelings, but could you move them already?

Here, the word is plural - the feelings belong to multiple butts - so we only add an apostrophe.
The Dallas Cowboys' record.
The players' salaries.
The fans' collective shame.

Ah, you say, but what about all those plural words that don't end in S? It's going to look mighty funky if you start talking about "the children' playground" and "women' fiction!"

Which is why, if we're speaking of "mice" and "men" or any other S-less plural word, you treat it exactly as you would if it were singular - with an apostrophe and an S.

Y'know, I'm all for gender equality, but the line for the men's room is *ridiculous*.

The children's visit to the park.
The geese's sudden attack.
The cameramen's delight.

In conclusion, the cardinal rule for all this apostrophizing is that when showing possession, you never break up a word with an apostrophe.  We wouldn't say Mr. Jame's class, the wolve's den, or the cat's heads - it's Mr. James's class, the wolves' den, and unless we're talking about a tragic medical oddity of a cat, the cats' heads.

And if you find yourself tempted to sprinkle apostrophes a little too liberally in your prose... well, just keep an eye out for Butch.

There's plenty more to say about apostrophes, but that will do for today.   Tune in tomorrow for our next exciting adventure!

Further reading:

Purdue OWL: Apostrophe
Grammar Girl: Apostrophe Catastrophe, Part One and Part Two
Grammar Girl: Why Doesn't "Veterans Day" Have an Apostrophe?
Possessive Apostrophe Rules

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Zucchini Muffin
2.  Jimi Hendrix
3.  Peaches
4.  Voodoo
5.  Pete* and Pete
6.  Beau* and Xena
7.  Pete, Pete*, and Blu*

*honorary cat

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Awesome! As a writer, grammar nerd, and English teacher, I love stuff like this--it keeps my knowledge constantly refreshed and gives me new ways to explain things to my students! Can't wait for more.

    1. Thanks for the love! I know how hard it is to keep those little darlings awake and interested (and truth be told, I think most of us adults are really pretty much the same.) Let's hear it for fun AND educational!

  2. Great job Tex! Are you going to highlight hyphens? Those are my dreaded curse when it comes to solving Wheel of Fortune puzzles lol

    I so need to submit my beast to participate as a GrammatiCat! Looking forward to more :) I love the pinkie ratings.

    I may drive you completely nuts with my grammar butchering :(

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink

    1. No way, dude - I don't get depressed when people make mistakes. If nobody's paying you to do sit-ups / dress fashionably / know where semi-colons go, then any efforts you make on those fronts are your own business, and nobody has the right to shame you for watching Wheel of Fortune instead.

      The only time grammar errors ever really bum me out is when I see them in published work. Then it's like, "Okay, guys - presumably you paid someone to write that ad copy / post that flyer / line-edit that manuscript. So either you cheaped out on the editing bigtime, or somebody needs to be fired."

      (So glad you suggested hyphens, by the way - I was wondering what the dickens I was going to do for H!)

  3. Grammar and LOL cats...? You are officially awesome. Makes me wish I had a cat. Almost :-) I'm looking forward to the rest of your A to Z posts!

    Jenny at Choice City Native

    1. Haha, thanks for the love! And don't worry - you can live vicariously through YouTube and LOLcats pretty well, I think, and any house-plants you may have will thank you for abstaining from kittendom. (As will your little furry icon friend, who lights up my life every time I see him!)

  4. My students would love this. A great topic to launch A to Z.

    1. Thanks so much - feel free to share it with them! (I may have to trade you cats for cake, though - if my students don't take it, I will!)

  5. Oh, Tex. I am grammatically challenged and I love me some kitties. Your blog is a dream come true. Good luck with the challenge.

    1. Pam, I actually cannot remember the last time I have had this much fun on the Internet. Thank you SO MUCH for cluing me in on this fantastic event. (Just you wait and see what I've got lined up for Violet and Judy...!)

  6. As an AP English student I loved this grammar reminder! And it uses cats. Purrfect.

    1. WTG, Monica! Way to step up to the AP plate and run with the big dogs! (And thanks so much for the compliments - I will pass them on to the kitty committee!)

  7. Thank you!! I couldn't have put it better myself. I have a hatred for apostrophe catastrophes, and I just wish I could use those rogue apostrophes as weapons or devices of torture for those who abuse them!

    1. Y'know, I used to feel exactly the same way!

      Then I sat down to actually look up the rules, and discovered more rules, and each of those rules with its own exceptions and particular cases (such as how, for example, one should use apostrophe-S even after names ending in S, like Norris's, except if the S isn't pronounced, as in Camus', or when it would look weird, as in Xerxes', and sometimes in particular phrases, such as "for goodness' sake")... and I just thought, "My God. How have we not already had our cities laid waste by a torrent of frustrated ESL students?"

      But I am so glad to see so many people who DO want to learn these things, and people like you who value them and take pride in knowing them, and I think... yes, by gum, we can make the world a better place - one well-placed apostrophe at a time!

    2. Yes, the apostrophe at the end of names ending with S. EXCEPT!! Except for the title of Bridget Jones's Diary!!

  8. Great post. In one of my WIPs I had a name that ended in S and it always confused me where to put the apostrophe. I'm so hopeless sometimes. At least I know people that can help me put those little marks in the right place.

    1. Don't get depressed! Get pumped! Say, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, I can tell a great story - and I will not think less of myself because of a stupid punctuational pubic hair!"

      (And if that didn't gross you out, I hope it at least made you laugh, because in the grand scheme of things, this stuff really does get a bit silly sometimes.)

  9. Very helpful, thank you. My cats don't give a damn about grammar. My dog fakes interest for bacon.

    1. Haha, ain't that the TRUTH! I'd say that having pets prepared me pretty well for having students. There are some who will sit, stay, and beg for a crispy strip of academic credit, but the rest are pretty much dedicated to sleeping, grooming, and the occasional wild sprint of ruckus-making.

  10. Gotta love them dangly little midair commas! Great post.

    I'm a fan of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss - it's helped me out on many an occasion.

    I'll be back to catch your A-Z posts - my learning curve is far from complete!


    1. Man, I never realized until I started this GrammatiCat gig how many people love that book - that is so awesome! (I can't wait to sit down with your blog today - I smell puppy love!)

  11. Replies
    1. Thanks, Tamara - it's about time we put our kitties to work! (Do you have a blog, BTW? I'd love to visit!)

  12. Beautiful! Your examples read like a Cards Against Humanity haiku round.


      I am a better person for having seen this.

      Thank you so much for enlightening me!

      (Not a haiku, but it'll do for thanks - Cards Against Humanity clearly has to be my next purchase!)

      Freakin' love your username, by the way - don't mind me while I lick your blog!

  13. I thought I had it till the last paragraph and then I realised I'd lost it again. This is like numbers to me, it does NOT wish to compute. Only hours of screaming DOH during edits will save me. :(

    Although, merging grammar and the butt's (or is that butts) made me smile. :)

    1. Haha, I'm glad it was good for a grin!

      And you know, I think our major fatal assumption here (with grammar and with math) is that we have to read things really carefully, one time, and then we should understand them. I dunno about you, but it just doesn't work that way for me - and my life got so much happier once I figured out that it really was okay to make multiple shots on the goal!

  14. Thanks, Tex! Tutoring just got a little bit more fun for me!