Saturday, September 20, 2008

Apostrophe rules: Apostrophe Nightmares

Quick, get out pen and paper and take this short quiz. Which of the
following sentences are correct:

1. Though she couldn't really afford it, Mary bought a new Cadillac so that she could keep up with the Jones'.

2. This store close's at 9 p.m.

3. Santa's are seen on almost every street corner these days.

4. Go ask somebody elses' opinion.

5. Mike's and Erika's van was a moving trash receptacle.

6. His speech was littered with long pauses and "ums".

7. Their the nicest ladies of our cooking group, and they're
peach cobblers are to die for.

Hold on to your answers until the end of this article.

You have less than one minute (if you're lucky) to grab an editor's attention. No matter how great your work is, if it's riddled with grammatical mistakes, it will only be routed to the circular file. Save yourself the aggravation and the branding as an amateur, by tightening up your work. Today's lesson: Apostrophes.

Though frequently misused in common practice, an apostrophe indicates possession and is not used to form plural nouns. Now in case you slept through Ms. Carbuncle's 8th grade English class or were too busy writing love notes, let me explain. You use apostrophes when you are trying to show ownership or possession of something. Use an -'s with singular and plural nouns and with indefinite pronouns that do not end in -s.

EX: Grandma's apple pie won a blue ribbon at the county fair.

* The children's angelic performance brought many parents to tears.

* It was no one's fault but my own.

One way to check if you're confused about whether a noun is showing possession or not is to try to substitute the word whose for the noun and make your sentence into a question.

EX: Whose apple pie won a blue ribbon at the county fair? Grandma's.

Where it gets tricky is when your noun (singular or plural) ends in -s . Only add -'s to singular nouns that end in -s.

EX: The business's profits decreased dramatically after the holiday season.

* James's gift was wrapped in the Sunday comics.

For plural nouns that end in -s, only add an apostrophe.

EX: The houses' floor plans were identical.

* The Joneses' vacation to Israel was cut short due to civil unrest.

One common apostrophe gaffe is using -'s to form the plurals of nouns. Remember: Apostrophes show possession.

EX: The Hatfields and McCoys were bitter enemies.

* The package was technically addressed to "The Sampsons", however Mr. And Mrs. Simpson opened it anyway.

Another common apostrophe blunder is confusing personal pronouns that show possession (such as its, your, their) with contractions (it's, you're, they're). Possessive forms of personal pronouns don't need apostrophes. One quick test is to break the contracted words out and see if the sentence makes sense.

EX: Your problem is disorganization. You're going to have to buy an organizer.

Easy, you say? Not only were you attentive in Ms. Carbuncle's class, you made an A in freshman English composition. Now let's move on to some rules that occasionally trip up even the seasoned writer.

When faced with compound words or word groups, add -'s to only the last word.

EX: Her mother-in-law's constant harping drove Jill to tears.

* The council president's optimistic forecast of the new fiscal year brought thundering applause from the audience.

* I did my part; it is somebody else's problem now.

When two or more nouns show individual possession, add -'s to each of them.

EX: James's, Linda's, and Kyle's doctors all suggested that they lose weight.
[They all have different doctors.]

However, when two or more nouns show joint possession, add -'s only to the final word.

EX: James, Linda, and Kyle's workplace offers free weight loss clinics.
[They all work at the same company.]

One final brainteaser for you: How do you correctly pluralize letters and numbers? First, italicize the letter, number, or word named as a word. Then add an unitalicized -'s.

EX: Don't forget to dot your i's and cross your t's.
Look for the oranges with three 4's on the label.
No more if's, and's, or but's!

An exception to this rule is referring to years in a decade. Decades are not italicized and often omit the apostrophe. For example, both 1920's and 1920s are acceptable as long as you are consistent within your work.

Now that you are armed with an arsenal of apostrophe rules, go back to the quiz at the beginning of this article. Feel free to revise your answers utilizing your new knowledge. Hint: If you said any of the quiz sentences were correct, reread this article. If you realized that all were wrong and corrected them appropriately, give yourself a hearty applause. You’ve made Ms. Carbuncle proud and have bought your manuscript a few more precious seconds of life in an editor’s hands.

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