Bête’s Noire’s Number Four: Apostrophe’s*

“I now understand that the punishment’s my parent’s gave to me were mean’t to make me a better man.”

Apparently, they weren’t interested in their son’s writing skills.

Granted, this is an extreme case (though not fictional, unfortunately).  Not many people believe an apostrophe actually belongs in the word ‘meant’. But hardly a day goes by during the semester that I don’t see this error in student work. The issue, of course, is simple. It’s a case of mistaken identity. A plural suffix –s is being confused with the possessive suffix of –’s.

I can understand being confused about where to put the possessive suffix. The rules aren’t elaborate but can present some snags:

  • After a singular noun, regardless of what letter it ends in = add ‘s
    • Example: The student‘s test was covered in tears.
    • Example: The class‘s pet tarantula was crushed by an errant basketball.
  • After a plural noun ending with any letter other than –s = add ‘s
    • Example: His children‘s birthday parties always ended in a fight.
  • After a plural noun ending in –s = just add apostrophe
    • Example: Her parents hopes were dashed when she came home with her new boyfriend, Snake.

Of course, with proper nouns, the rules get tweaked a bit:

  • After a singular noun, ending in any letter other than -s = add ‘s
    • Example: Mary‘s test was covered in tears.
  • After a singular noun ending in –s = add ‘s…or not. Your choice.
    • Example: James‘s pet tarantula was crushed by an errant basketball.
    • Example: Jamespet tarantula was crushed by an errant basketball.
  • After a plural noun ending with any letter other than –s = add ‘s
    • Example: The Johnson‘s hopes were dashed when their daughter came home with her new boyfriend, Snake.
  • After a plural noun ending in –s = add ‘s…or not. Your choice again.
    • Example: The Jones‘s barbecues always ended in a fight.
    • Example: The Jones barbecues always ended in a fight.

The only other place an apostrophe has any rights to is in a contraction. English has a sound structure that allows us to swallow up some syllables for the sake of getting more words into a sentence. It’s all about timing our speech. Without getting too technical, this is called a stress-timed language. What this basically means is that the stress of a word, not its total syllable count, is what we care about. If a syllable is not stressed, then it’s a candidate to be tossed out when we’re speaking. This is in opposition to languages like Spanish or Turkish which are syllable-timed. They are more egalitarian about their sounds. Every syllable counts and rarely do they get dropped.

In English writing, the letters of the dropped syllables are represented by the apostrophe. In the contraction can’t, the missing letters are the no- of the negative. In the contraction it’s, the missing letter is the i of the verb. Frustratingly enough, the possessive adjective or pronoun is itswith NO apostrophe.

Can this trip people up? Absolutely! If someone is clearly expressing a possessive but misplaces the apostrophe, it’s not cause for tar and feathering (well…maybe just a little tar for the folks who put up the “Ladie’s room” sign I once saw). Even the weirdness of it’s vs its can be confusing because it takes the apostrophe away from the possessive and gives it to the contraction. And surely, in moments of fatigue, distraction, or trick of the eyes, we’ve all forgotten where an apostrophe should go, or mistakenly written, “Save yourselves, its not too late!”

The apostrophe is not a whore! NOT!

So, I’m not talking about the occasional typo. Sometimes our fingers play tricks on us and type out things that we know our brain didn’t tell them to type. But there are some who systematically force the apostrophe into places where it doesn’t want to be. Do they really not know the difference between a plural and a possessive? Do they really think that “My parent’s gave me everything I needed” means “my parent is gave me…”? And if they really do think this, for the love of Fred, why? How did they get this notion? How do they still have this notion after being taught otherwise time and time again?

The way I see it is that they do actually know the difference but they don’t care. This, my friends, is the sin that I am objecting to: the criminal negligence of the correct uses of the apostrophe. These people have been exposed to the rules, and most of them have probably even learned them and could spit them back out if pressed to do so. When no one is taking them to task, however, they just don’t care where they put that cute little curl. In the hands of these apostrophe pimps, the poor little thing has to show up in plurals or even, as in the example sentence at the top of this post, in “contractions” that aren’t even contractions!

It’s time to stop apostrophe trafficking. If you understand the difference between a plural and a possessive, then you know the difference between right and wrong. Even if your fingers betray you, a quick proofreading pass can usually save a stray apostrophe that slipped through the cracks. Choose wisely, my friends, and pay attention so that no apostrophe – or English teacher – will ever have to suffer from this terrible crime ever again.

*Yes, this title is incorrect on purpose. You didn’t really think otherwise, did you?

See Bête Noire Number Five here.

21 thoughts on “Bête’s Noire’s Number Four: Apostrophe’s*

  1. Before too long, “its” will dry up like a neglected plant and completely drop from American English. People are confused because “it’s” as a possessive is pervasive, even appearing in print (does anyone edit their books anymore?). I don’t think it’s a case of apathy — I believe people genuinely think “it’s” is a possessive. My son Ani’s teacher (8th grade) even taught them that “it’s” was possessive!! No lie! When he pointed out her error, and she denied it was wrong, he told her, “Maybe she should look it up.” She was offended, but I hope she did! As you can tell, I have drilled the its/it’s distinction at home. Maybe there should be a national campaign!

    • I think there should be a national campaign! :) I think the confusion over its/it’s is fairly understandable, but there is no excuse for his teacher to make that mistake!

      When I ask students why they used ‘s for plural, they have no answer. I tell them that plurals don’t use the apostrophe and I get the “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot.” In the next essay, the mistake is there again. I’ve gotten to the point that if I correct something two times and I see it in a third paper (systematically, not just one or two typos), then I start taking points off. This is COLLEGE and I’m taking points of silly mechanical issues. These aren’t the learning disabled students, either. These are the ones who should know better and probably do know better, but they don’t care.

      • Ugh! Your so right! My biggest pet peeve is the omission of an apostrophe such as the one in my second word! (It bugged you when you first saw it, right?!) I am a teacher, albeit a third grade teacher, but the distinction between your and you’re starts early. I teach it! I do…..and yet, I am discouraged to hear that even in college they just don’t care. I have seen the pair misused in magazines, on billboards, and even by my fellow teachers. I think I have been teaching ‘little people’ for so long that I tend to question my judgment on the English language. When I see wen, shure, rilly, and grate so often I look twice! Don’t even get me started on there, their, and they’re!!

        I was actually writing because I saw that you have taught ESL in different countries. This is something I am interested in and am curious if you used a specific curriculum or taught from your experience as a professor. Loved reading your blog!

      • (Okay, maybe it bugged me a little bit…but it was a good save! ;)

        I have no doubt that these things are taught in early grades, and even taught well! It’s amazing even in college what students miss. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “You never did that in class”. Then I pull out the lesson plan, the examples, and the handouts I distributed. “No, no, dear. Just because you missed the material as you were having a nice little nap in the corner doesn’t mean that I didn’t cover it in class.”

        I had to laugh at how hard it gets sometimes to remember the correct way to say/spell something after seeing it written incorrectly. After years of seeing the same ESL mistakes, many of us in the teacher staffroom had to check ourselves against each other. You’d hear a yell: “Can I get a native speaker judgement here??”

        I actually taught ESL before I started teaching at the college, so the courses I teach now are heavily influenced by the techniques I learned as an ESL teacher. I first taught as a grad student in the Linguistics department. Their English Language Institute was staffed mostly by us grad students, and so many of my teaching habits date back to those days. We taught discreet skills – different classes for grammar, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Over the years, I taught in institutions that had slightly different teaching strategies, and for the most part, the skills were integrated into one course, but many of the underlying philosophies were the same. I was usually given the books that I had to teach from and some general points that I had to cover, but other than that, the actual classroom management and activities were left up to me. It’s good that I’ve had a good deal of autonomy for most of my career because I really don’t do well with micromanagement or overly standardized curricula (just one more reason I have avoided the public schools!).

        Thanks for commenting! And feel free to email if you have more questions about ESL teaching.

    • I realize this post appears significantly after the original posting, but I couldn’t resist a reply. The teacher in question is a most likely a product of ‘The New English’ being taught in U.S. schools since approximately 1974. Schools summarily tossed out phonics & grammar in ’74 (or thereabouts) in favor of Word Recognition, which is proven not to work well at all. Why they thought memorizing over 450,000 words was easier than the 75 English ‘rules’ of reading was easier is anyone’s guess.

      I believe the reason over 50% of adults in this country are now classified ‘functionally illiterate’, which means they can’t read at a 5th grade level, is a direct cause of this learning epidemic. It’s become so bad RNs are taught to dumb-down all patient instructions & include pictures so we avoid embarrassing patients who are – you’ll love this – ‘educationally impaired’.

      This inability to read contributes heavily to the unacceptable drop-out rate, particularly in major cities where it’s upwards of 40%. It’s the main reason so many potential employees can’t fill out an employment form. As a former Director of not just one, but two major healthcare facilities I can vouch for the headaches this poses in hiring workers. I couldn’t even hire housekeepers who couldn’t read because of their need to read & sign MDS guides for every chemical they use or which they may come into any contact with on the job.

      I’ve run into some pretty awful teachers in every level of education. My son’s 7th grade math teacher comes to mind first. He failed my son on a test, not because of wrong answers (he got every answer correct) but because he didn’t understand the math used! My son had been taught from 4 yrs. on from my spouse’s basic math & engineering books. He thought nothing of using that math in school. When we confronted him about this he fell back on the old standard, “I expect them to use the math I teach them.” We asked him if he had a degree in Mathematics: he became enraged & walked out. We later found out his degree was in Ancient History. When we confronted the School Board they said as a tenured teacher they’d been forced under that system’s contract to give him the first job opening they had when his high school class was cancelled due to low turn-out. When we showed them what he’d done, the Board backed him (no surprise).

      If the worst today’s people do is miss an apostrophe or forget the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ perhaps we should count ourselves lucky. It could be a lot worse.

      • Hi Eloise!

        You’re so right about what you’ve said in your comment. I was educated in the 70s and I think my district was still teaching phonics, but I have no recollection of it, but then again, I already knew how to read when I started school so it’s possible I just slept through those lessons ;) But I also think I got lucky in that I had teachers who paid as much attention to those who were ahead of the reading curve as much as they did to those were were behind it. I remember having extra reading lessons in kindergarten along with my best friend who also knew how to read already. In 1st grade, we still had spelling bees and in 2nd grade, we had writing contests. In 9th grade, our English class was putting out a monthly “literary journal” filled with stories that the members of the class wrote. Each member of the class got a turn at being editor, and we were responsible for actually editing.

        But within five years, students in my same district were getting a much different education – one with “new math” and “whole language” teaching methods that proved somewhat disastrous. And the teachers of today who grew up with that system are now, I feel, handicapped in a way. How can they enforce standards when they were never held to those standards when they were students? As a teacher in a community college, I am seeing the results of this all the time, and I also work with teachers who have worked in the public system for 30+ years and have personally witnessed the decline of writing skills. 70% of our students who enroll in classes need some form of remedial work to get them up to college level, either in reading, writing, or math. We are the ones who have to “fix” the sins of the K-12 education these students have received. I’m often the the first person to tell a student who always got high grades in English that he or she does NOT, in fact, know how to write well.

        There’s a new initiative in my school, in fact, to strengthen the connection to some of the local high schools where many of our students come from. If we can get programs in place that allow us to work with high school seniors, we might be able to help them catch up before they even graduate, so when they do come to our school or apply to a different one, they WILL be ready, instead of graduating high school only to find out that they have to essentially repeat their senior year’s English and Math courses.

        And yes, I absolutely agree that some misplaced apostrophes are an easy problem to deal with. Too bad that’s NOT the worst I see :(

    • I got good at making up weird example sentences from teaching ESL. When I first started, I was using good ol’ John and Mary doing regular ol’ John and Mary stuff. Then I got bored and ended up blurting out something about a dog biting crazy Aunt Jane or whatever. A couple of weeks later, a student was able to answer a question about that grammar point because she remembered that specific sentence and its weirdness. I got the lesson. Weird gets remembered, so from then on, my sentences were always slightly…uh…off-kilter. John and Mary weren’t going going shopping or playing football anymore; they were getting piercings or stealing from the boss! :)

  2. Love this post! The average student’s misuse of the apostrophe also leads me to tear at my hair, shriek, and mercilessly dock points. And as you say, most of the time, it is just laziness… Off with their heads, I say!

    • Thanks :)

      I can see it in their eyes, but they also outright tell me so: they don’t know why they make the mistake, and they seem utterly unmotivated to correct it. It just doesn’t matter to them. It’s easier with some other punctuation because I can hammer into their heads that it CAN and does create a very different meaning when they get it wrong. But the poor little apostrophe gets no respect :) It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation!

  3. One of my favorite pet peeves! And try explaining it to Spanish speakers! Here in Chile it is often misused in store names with funny results, such as the clothing store Fashion’s Park. (except it’s “Fashion´s Park because they tend to use an accent instead of an apostrophe). I try to explain that Fashion’s Park would be a park that belongs to someone named Fashion. But in Spanish, that’s “un parque de Fashion.” They say, yeahhhh? and? because the same expression also means “a park dedicated to fashion,” so they don’t see the difference!
    And then there’s the whole “no plural adjectives in English” debate…

    • Yeah, it drove the Turks crazy too (I taught ESL there). Turkish puts possessive markers on both the adjective and the noun, so in English, they kept doing things like “John’s book’s”.

      Isn’t it funny that, according to people who have to learn it, English is so completely illogical compared to (insert native language here) ;)

      (Really enjoying your blog, btw. It’s bookmarked now. I mean, you write about diphthongs AND olive oil. How cool is that?)

      • I can see how people would think that English is illogical… at least where spelling is concerned… but then, most people think that the way THEY think is logical and anything else just isn’t!
        Thanks for bookmarking my blog–glad you like it! Diphthongs & olive oil–yeah, well, graduate study in anthropology brought me to Chile, and then I ended up becoming a wine/food writer/translator, and I’ve always loved photography, so basically just about anything human, edible, drinkable, and/or visible is fair game!

  4. As a writer who needs an editor, but of course doesn’t have one, I’m usually mortified when I finally spot an error that’s probably been noticed by my readers. I try very hard to spot them before I click publish, but as you acknowledge here, they sometimes do slip by even when we do care. It’s funny, though, that I seem to have the most trouble when leaving comments on other people’s blogs, so here’s an apology in advance if one gets by me now! I am awfully sleepy at the moment, but I’m trying!

    • Not an error in sight! :)

      I have to admit that I get a little obsessive over catching typos in my posts. I re-read several times before publishing, but then I also read the posted version several times over within an hour or so. I nearly always catch something that slipped through even after three proofreading passes after composing! I keep telling myself to just let it go, but I can’t seem to stop myself.

      I’m kinda laughing at the idea of how comments have more typos. I just commented on something a friend wrote on Facebook, and when I looked back at it, I had to smack myself in the head. You’d think I’d never written a sentence before! ;)

      Thanks for commenting! Hope to hear from you more :)

    • It’s nice to vent about the frustration it causes to people who actually understand! Most people just roll their eyes…well, the ones whose eyes aren’t already glazed over!

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