Georgia Garden Girl

Garden Great in Zone 8!

An Apostrophe Epidemic

Please allow me to digress from the topic of gardening for one short article.  Aunt Emmie and Goggy, this one’s for you.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of apostrophe epidemic?  Everywhere I look, someone misuses this punctuation mark, and it seems to me that apostrophe mistakes are reaching epidemic proportions.

There are plenty of other grammar and punctuation problems that occur with epidemic frequency, much to the horror of my grandmother and aunt.  There is the ending-sentences-with-prepositions epidemic; it is now apparently acceptable for college professors and newscasters to ask where something “is at.”  There is the use-of-the-wrong-pronoun epidemic; some folks don’t even blink when a college graduate says, “Her and I went to the store” or “George came to the community garden with Martha and I.”  Don’t get me wrong—I do find these slip-ups in the spoken word to be quite irritating.  But these days, it is glaringly obvious apostrophe mistakes that irk me most.  Aren’t we supposed to spend at least some time thinking about what to write and how to punctuate it?

My writing is far from perfect.  I know that.  I am sure that I make my share of mistakes.  I usually experience a conjugation conundrum when it comes to the verbs “lay” and “lie.”  I overuse dashes, semicolons, parentheticals, and footnotes.  I have arguments with colleagues about the proper placement of commas.  I occasionally start sentences with “however.”  But I rarely misuse the apostrophe.

The rules of the apostrophe are simple and finite.  Why are so many people confused by this tiny speck of punctuation?  Maybe we text so much that we’ve forgotten how to write using real words and punctuation.  Or maybe we’ve seen so many examples of poor punctuation in websites, work documents, and (gasp) newspapers that we are desensitized to the problem. But we can still try to get the apostrophe right.  Friends, you don’t need to whip out The Elements of Style every time you want to use an apostrophe.  (But if you’re curious, the apostrophe is addressed on page 1.)  Just try to remember the basic rules.  And remind your friends!  Let’s review.

1. Do not use an apostrophe to make a plural.  This mistake the most common one, and it is on the rise.
Incorrect: “Elizabeth was upset that her neighbor’s trampled her zinnia’s.”
No, no, no!  No apostrophes are necessary in this sentence.
Correct: “Elizabeth was upset that her neighbors trampled her zinnias.”
Think back to elementary school, when you learned that plurals of nouns are typically formed by simply adding an s or, in some cases, by adding es.  I know your third grade teacher did not tell you to add an apostrophe.  Resist!
2. Do not use “it’s” when you mean “its” (and vice versa).  This is the first of what I call the homonym mistakes, and it is terribly common.
Incorrect: “Its a shame that the dog couldn’t find it’s bone.”
Correct: “It’s a shame that the dog couldn’t find its bone.”
Remember, “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.”  “Its” is a possessive pronoun for it.  While we do use apostrophes to create possessives, we do not use apostrophes to create possessive pronouns.  Just as you wouldn’t write “her’s” instead of “hers” or “your’s” instead of “yours,” you should be careful not to write “it’s” instead of “its.”  When in doubt, spell out “it is” and don’t use a contraction.
3. Do not use “your” when you mean “you’re” (and vice versa).  This mistake is similar to the “it’s” vs. “its” mistake.  For some reason, it is even more annoying.
Incorrect: “Your supposed get you’re trowel so that you can plant the pansies.”
Correct: “You’re supposed to get your trowel so that you can plant the pansies.”
“You’re” is a contraction of “you are.”  “Your” is the possessive of the pronoun you.  When in doubt, spell out “you are” and don’t use a contraction.
4. Punctuate the possessive plural properly.  We’re going to step away from the homonym mistakes for a moment.  Don’t worry.  We’ll get back to them soon.  But first, we are going to have a brief refresher course on the possessive plural.  Church bulletin editors and invitation issuers everywhere, please take note.  Let’s say the potluck supper is at the home of Mary and Joseph Gilbert.  If you want to make the plural possessive of “Gilbert,” just add s and an apostrophe.
Correct: “The potluck supper is at the Gilberts’ house.”
Incorrect: “The potluck supper is at the Gilbert’s house.”
On the other hand, if you want to use the couple’s first names, you would add ’s to the second name.  So, “The potluck supper is at Mary and Joseph’s house.”  Simple, right?
Now, let’s say that the Bible study is at the home of Naomi Jones and her daughter-in-law, Ruth.  If you want to make the plural possessive of “Jones,” add es and an apostrophe.
Correct: “The Bible study is at the Joneses’ house.”
Incorrect: “The Bible study is at the Jones’ house.”
Also Incorrect: “The Bible study is at the Jones’s house.”
Again, you could always say that the Bible study is at “Naomi and Ruth’s house.”
5. Punctuate the possessive singular properly.  If you have a friend or relative named James or Charles (or something else that ends in an s), listen up.  Form the possessive singular of a noun by adding ’s—no matter what the final consonant is.  It’s “James’s toy” and “witch’s broom.”  There are exceptions, of course, like the possessive of ancient proper names ending in –es and –is.  So it’s “Jesus’ prayer” or “Achilles’ heel.”  When in doubt, consult Messrs. Strunk and White.
6. Do not use “there” or “their” when you mean “they’re.”  Another common homonym mistake!
Clearly nonsensical: “Their going to plant there annuals over they’re.”
Correct: “They’re going to plant their annuals over there.”
“Their” is the possessive of the pronoun they.  “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.”  And “there” is a place that is not here.
7. Do not use “whose” when you mean “who’s” (and vice versa).  I think this is the last of the most common homonym mistakes.
Incorrect: “Who’s shovel is this, and whose the one who offered to sharpen it?”
Correct: “Whose shovel is this, and who’s the one who offered to sharpen it?”
“Whose” is the possessive of the pronoun who.  Who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has.”

Thank you for letting me ramble about the apostrophe.  I realize that the apostrophe epidemic is insignificant compared to all the other epidemics we face (obesity epidemic, flu epidemic, epidemic of incivility, etc.).  But the basic rules of the apostrophe are so easy that we need not suffer from an apostrophe epidemic!  Thank you for your attention to this matter.  And please don’t get me started on “alot” and split infinitives.  I’ll get back to gardening now.

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