Writing tips 3: the feral apostrophe

The Sunday regular blog: grammar and such…

There is nothing that so marks a piece of writing as unprofessional as a feral apostrophe.

And yet writing “it’s” when you mean “its” is an easy typo, and one that you can’t pick up with a spellcheck. Happily it usually does jump out at me from my own typing like a red flea on a black and white page. Unhappily, it does the same to me when I read it elsewhere. It prejudices me immediately. (And yet there is a certain member of my own family, who has a Masters from Oxford and a Ph.D from Cornell, who regularly sends me plaintive emails asking, ‘What’s the rule on “its” again?’)

Let’s be quite clear about one thing first before we deal with “its” and “it’s”:
PLURALS never take an apostrophe UNLESS they also show POSSESSION (ownership).

You can’t write: Bagel’s, application’s, war’s, boy’s – when all you mean is more than one bagel, application, war or boy. (And I don’t think there are going to be too many people reading this who think that you can!)
Example: You can write “the boys’ shouting was heard in the next street…”, meaning the shouting of a number of boys was heard; or you can write “The boy’s shouting was heard…” meaning the shouting of one boy was heard. But never, “The boy’s shouting in the next yard were heard all over the neighbourhood.” What you mean is that there were a number of boys shouting and they, the boys, were heard all over the neighbourhood. So it should read: “The boys shouting in the next yard were heard all over the neighbourhood.”.

And you CAN’T write “your’s”, “our’s”, “her’s”, “their’s” either, EVER. Even though possession is involved. There, that’s simple enough, isn’t it? NEVER, ever, ever. Don’t worry about why not, just remember the rule. It’s simple.

The trouble usually come with “its” because sometimes we do insert an apostrophe.

This is also quite simple to remember too:
“It’s” means “it is”. ALWAYS.
If it doesn’t mean “it is”, then spell it like this: “its”.
Don’t worry about why. Just do it. Easy, right?


Writing tips 3: the feral apostrophe — 4 Comments

  1. I get many little things like the one above wrong. The one that plagued me the most until recently was sent vs. send. The horrors of being ESL and self-taught…It’s always good to see people still post such useful information for others.

    Thank you for this lesson!

  2. Oh don’t get me started. Feral apostrophes and misuse of the word ‘decimate’ send me into frothing frenzy … *g*

    Excellent explanations!

  3. Nordevious – glad to be of help. I dunno how anyone manages to conquer English as a Second Language, quite frankly!

    Karen, I actually disagree with you over decimate. I think, like many, many other words, the usage has already deviated from the original to have come to mean “destroy a large part of” and that even dictionaries recognise this nowadays. Shall I try to include the word used this way in every future book I write, just for the pleasure of seeing you froth?
    *Gives evil grin*

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