When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word “its.” I put an apostrophe in when I shouldn’t have, and it was a traumatic moment in my young life. But I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can’t change my past, I feel the next best thing would be to save all of you from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
What Is the Purpose of an Apostrophe?
Apostrophes have two main uses in the English language: They stand in for something that’s missing, and they can be used to make a word possessive.
Apostrophes first showed up in the 1500s as a way to indicate omissions. Today, the most common place to find this kind of apostrophe is in contractions such as “can’t” (for “cannot”), “that’s” (for “that is”), and “it’s” (for “it is” or “it has”), but they can also be used in fun ways.
If you’re writing fiction, you might use apostrophes to eliminate letters to represent a character’s dialect; for example, “I saw ’em talkin’ yonder,” with apostrophes to indicate that the speaker said “‘em” instead of “them” and “talkin’” instead of “talking.” Sometimes people call this “eye dialect” because it’s dialect that your eye can see on the page. Most people who give fiction writing advice say it’s fine to occasionally use eye dialect, but you should do so sparingly because it can be hard to read and distracting, and it’s also easy to get it wrong.
In the 1600s and again in the 1700s, new uses emerged for the apostrophe, so it’s no wonder that people were and are confused (1), and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people even tried to set down firm rules for the apostrophe (2).
Apostrophes Indicate Possession
One major new use for the apostrophe was to indicate possession. For example, “the aardvark’s pencil,” where there is an “apostrophe-S” at the end of “aardvark.” That means the pencil belongs to the aardvark. He is in possession of it. It is not a contraction of “aardvark” and “is.” No letters are missing. At least not today.
An interesting side note is that it doesn’t seem so strange that we use an “apostrophe-s” to make words possessive once you realize that in Old English, it was common to make words possessive by adding “-es” to the end. For example, the possessive of “fox” would have been “foxes,” which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the E with an apostrophe to make “fox’s” the possessive case. So “apostrophe-S” for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the E was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone seems to have eventually forgotten all about the missing E.
Common Apostrophe Errors and How to Avoid Them
Normally, I would assume that most people understand apostrophe basics and move on, but there are too many examples to the contrary for me to ignore them. Let’s get to the basics.
For some reason, people seem especially prone to apostrophe errors, and most especially people who write signs and flyers. For example, a listener named Katy sent me a photo of a sign in a vegetable market advertising “Banana’s $1.50.” “Banana’s apostrophe-S,” as though a banana was carrying around pocket change. The apostrophe before the S makes the $1.50 a possession of one lucky banana.
I also would have given anything to have had a camera with me when I came upon a menu advertising “Ladie’s Night,” L-A-D-I-E-‘-S night. I’m assuming the proprietors meant “Ladies’ Night,” but I have this image in my mind of the restaurant providing free entry to one particular dapper laddie.
The bottom line is that whenever you are using apostrophes, especially if you are making signs or flyers, take a second and a third look at them to make sure you’re doing it right. Do you want to make your noun possessive? Are you making a contraction. If not, you don’t need an apostrophe.
‘Its’ Versus ‘It’s’
I’ll end this part today with an overview of the word that caused me such torment in second grade: “its.” Confusing the two forms of “its” is a common mistake. “It’s” can mean “it is” and “it has” when you use an apostrophe to make a contraction, but “its,” I-T-S-no-apostrophe, is a possessive pronoun just like “hers,” “ours,” and “yours,” none of which take an apostrophe either.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think the reason people get confused about whether to put an apostrophe in “you’re,” “they’re” “who’s,” and “it’s” is the way we’re taught about apostrophes and possessives in grade school.
When we’re first taught about making words possessive, we’re taught about making nouns possessive, and you do that with apostrophes. We have
- Aardvark’s fishing pole
- Squiggly’s chocolate
- the trip’s agenda
“Aardvark,” “Squiggly,” and “the trip” are all nouns, and you make them possessive with an apostrophe-S. We aren’t taught about pronouns until later, at least I wasn’t, and by then, the idea that possessives and apostrophes go together is firmly embedded in your brain, but pronouns are different from nouns. You make pronouns possessive by using a different spelling—no apostrophe-S in sight.
“You” becomes “your.” (Y-O-U-R. Don’t forget your fishing pole.)
“They” becomes “their.” (T-H-E-I-R. Squiggly and Aardvark reviewed their agenda.)
“Who” becomes “whose.” (W-H-O-S-E. Whose chocolate melted in the back seat?)
“It” becomes “its.” (I-T-S. The car is on its last leg.)
So nouns use apostrophes to become possessive, but possessive pronouns get their own separate spellings. But…some of them happen to end with S, like “its,” which can make it confusing, remember that pronouns never use apostrophes to become possessive. I don’t say “never” very often, but this is a case where “never” applies. When you see “it’s,” it’s always a contraction of “it is” or “it has.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
The Apostrophe Song
To cap off this first installment about apostrophes, I have a fabulous song written by a listener named Eileen Thorpe.
Now, Eileen must have also been affected by some kind of apostrophe trauma because she wrote these words, which are sung to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree” by Rahel Jaskow of Jerusalem, Israel.
Apostrophe (Oh Christmas Tree)
by Eileen Thorpe
You drive me oh so batty.
Your overuse is a travesty.
Some people just can’t get enough
They must think you’re hot stuff
Some rules to avoid catastrophe.
It’s hers and theirs and yours and its
when you want to possess a bit
And when you need to pluralize,
You don’t need to apostrophize.
And what of words that end in esess?
An apostrophe will only make a mess’s.
I wonder why you so confuse
I’m sure you’re tired of this abuse.
You drive me oh so batty.
Wasn’t that fabulous? Thanks again to Eileen Thorpe and Rahel Jaskow. You can check out Rahel’s blog Elms in the Yard, at opens in a new windowthis link, and listen to clips from her award-winning CD, Day of Rest.
- Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 61.
- Cavella, C., and Kernodle, R.A. How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe.