Apostrophes, Homonyms, and Grammar, Oh My! Common Mistakes You Might Not Know You're Making and How to Correct Them with Mariella Morgan
The Apostrophe -- Using It Correctly Is Becoming a Lost Art
A little background first --As a proofreader I have read many entertaining and thought-provoking stories over the past year. I have also found some common mistakes in apostrophe use, comma use, and in dialogue in these manuscripts. It’s a well-known fact: if two writers submit great stories to a publisher, the writer with the more polished manuscript in the mechanics of writing has a better chance of receiving a contract than the writer who has many errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling in her manuscript.
We all have a gift. Mine is understanding how to use the mechanics of English to effectively communicate with others. In other words, I know how to punctuate everything from a simple sentence to a complex dialogue passage. I know how to make subjects agree with verbs and pronouns agree with their antecedents. I know the difference between the verbs lie and lay – that’s a big one!
In this lesson, I address APOSTROPHE use because this flying comma is in danger of becoming extinct if we don’t learn how to use it correctly.
There are only two rules for the apostrophe that writers of fiction will use often. Most people seem to understand and follow the rule for using apostrophes to form contractions, so I’ll start with that one.
Rule 1: Use an apostrophe to show where a letter, letters, or numbers have been omitted when forming a contraction.
Examples: have not = haven’t. . . . . . . . . cannot = can’t. . . . . . . . . . .1974 = ‘74
I will = I’ll . . . . . . . . . . . . . . will not = won’t
There are some tricky contractions, though. You must read the complete sentence to grasp their correct meanings. For instance,
He’s already gone to work. --------------- He has already gone to work.
He’s the best man for the job. ----------- He is the best man for the job.
He’d been late before. -------------------- He had been late before.
He’d have liked to see her again. ------- He would have liked to see her again.
The second rule is the one that mystifies many writers. Either they leave the apostrophe out, or they put it where it doesn’t belong or both. You see examples of what I'm talking about on signs everywhere. It baffles me how people can be smart enough to open a business but clueless as to where to put the apostrophe in their signs. I have threatened to carry a can of black paint in the car and correct any errant signs I pass, but since my husband does most of the driving, I'm sure he wouldn't stop the car if I did have the paint ready. Something about a law against defacing private property. I personally think that sign correction is NOT defacing property but enhancing it, but Chris says that judges won't buy my argument.
But I digress. On to the second rule. This rule is written several ways: Use an apostrophe to show possession, to make nouns possessive, to show ownership. Before I give you examples, I want to show you how German shows possession (translated into English). Look at these examples.
the son of Chris. . . . . . . the shoes for ladies. . . . . . . . . . . .the book of the children
In English, it would sound strange if you asked a friend about the son of Chris instead of Chris's son. Now aren’t you glad English has given us a shortcut – the apostrophe?
Rule 2: Use an apostrophe to show ownership. Here are some examples.
First, Chris’s son – Chris is a singular noun, meaning we are talking about only one Chris. For all singular nouns, even those that end in an s, we add an apostrophe and the letter s to the end of the noun. Here we add an s to Chris to make Chris possessive. Whose son is he? Chris’s son.
When we make proper nouns possessive, there are a few exceptions to this rule.
Jesus’ cross . . . .Moses’ tablets . . . .Achilles’ heel . . . .Archimedes’ principle
You have probably realized that these words are ancient. I suppose words that are thousands of years old should have the right to be different.
Second, ladies’ shoes – ladies is a plural noun, meaning there is more than one lady. For all plural nouns that end in an s, we simply add an apostrophe. The word ladies ends in an s, so all we do is add an apostrophe. Whose shoes are they? Ladies’ shoes.
Third, the children’s book – children is a plural noun, but the word children does not in an s. For all plural nouns that do not end in an s, we add an apostrophe and the letter s to the end of the plural noun. We add an apostrophe and an s to children to make the word possessive. Whose book is that? The children’s book.
Let’s consider how an apostrophe changes the meaning of sentences to show just how important using them correctly really is. Here are three pictures that illustrate the differences in meaning with and without an apostrophe and where the apostrophe is placed. As much as I love words, a picture is certainly worth a thousand words.
I am trying to add the pictures. If they aren't here, please use your imagination.
The first example -- Look at the boys box. Without an apostrophe, boys is a plural noun, and box is a verb.
The second example -- Look at the boy's box. The apostrophe between the y and s makes boy a singular noun possessive. The box belongs to one boy.
The third example -- Look at the boys' box. The apostrophe after the s makes boys, a plural noun, possessive. The box belongs to two boys.
In the last example, two boys owned one box. What if we used the boys' names, Sam and Sammy? The sentence would read -- Look at Sam and Sammy's box. LOOK CLOSELY-- only one apostrophe attached to the second boy's name.
Rule 2 part 2: If two people own one thing, attach the apostrophe to the second person's name. If two people own something separately, attach an apostrophe to each person's name and make the object they own plural.
Look at Sam's and Sammi's boxes. You could also write: Look at Sam's box and Sammi's box.
When don't you use apostrophes to show ownership? Good question.
Example 1: When three or more people own the same thing, do as the Germans do. Use a prepositional phrase beginng with of.
Look at Sam, Sammy, Sammi, and Samuel's home. I can't add the Pollard quadruplets because the phrase would have to describe home, which wouldn't make sense.
Better: Look at the home of Sam, Sammy, Sammi, and Samuel, the Pollard quadruplets.
Example 2: When you have a string of apostrophes, again use a prepositional phrase instead.
Look at my brother's math teacher's parents' home -- a mess of a sentence.
Better -- Look at the home of the parents of my brother's math teacher.
I know I said there were only two rules for apostrophes, but before I close this lesson on apostrophes, I feel compelled to add one more rule.
Rule 3: Never use an apostrophe to make a noun plural. I see this mistake often when I proof manuscripts. In English we usually add s or es to a noun to form the plural. Look at these examples -- no apostrophes anywhere!!!
one cat – two cats. . . . . . . one box – two boxes. . . . . . . one city – two cities
Note the spelling change in cities.
Irregular nouns are nouns that don’t add s or es to the singular form to make the plural form. Here are some examples of irregular nouns. Still no apostrophes!!!
one child – two children. . . . .one woman – two women. . . . . .one man – two men
WHAT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER: AN APOSTROPHE IS USED EITHER WITH A PERSON'S NAME OR A NOUN TO SHOW OWNERSHIP OR TO STAND FOR A LETTER THAT HAS BEEN LEFT OUT. IF NO ONE OWNS ANYTHING OR NOTHING IS LEFT OUT, YOU DON'T WANT AN APOSTROPHE.
the Queen of English