Don't Stumble over the Humble Apostrophe
This month's post is about something very basic—but when we're busy writing, sometimes even the basics become stumbling blocks.
We were driving onto the highway the other day, and our local BBQ joint (note, in our town there are only 3 choices for food: the Irish pub, the BBQ joint, or the sandwich shop) had just put out a new sign: "Breakfast Burrito's Served All Day."
I cringe at how common that mistake is. I know I'm guilty of the occasional typo because my fingers don't always listen to my brain, but I do know the rule. Mr. Holtby in high school English drilled it in. Deep. And although I hope most people here know the rules, too, I figured it might be worth a reminder, in case anyone wants to sell burritos all day.
An Apostrophe Has Two Uses
1. It shows possession. Something belongs to someone or something.
The man's hat. The dog's leash. My biggest trouble-spot with this is dealing with plurals. There's a difference (as my crit partner loves to point out) between the Detective's office and the Detectives' office. But then, I can never remember if I've given each of my detectives his own office.
I also have to stop and think about housing. You know, like when you go to the house that belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Since it belongs to both of them, it's the Smiths' house, not the Smith's house.
And words that already end in "s" can be a problem. I go out of my way to avoid naming characters with names ending in "s" to bypass the head-scratching. And here, I've seen it both ways. In my first book, my editor, whom I fear was overworked, didn't catch that I'd written both Doris' and Doris's throughout the manuscript. Luckily, I noticed it in edits. She really didn't care which one I used as long as they were all the same. My inclination is to leave off the final 's' after the apostrophe simply because it looks cumbersome and when I read it "aloud in my head" I keep added "s" sounds.
(I'm sure there are official editors here at BRP who will explain this one in the comments, and I welcome them. I have a kind of dislike-hate relationship with the Chicago Manual of Style, so I'm not even going to try to look up a rule.)
Okay, that's one use of the apostrophe. The other:
2. Replaces extra stuff. Yes, those were Mr. Holtby's words. (note the possessive apostrophe there! The words belonged to him.)
Apostrophes are used in contractions to show you've combined two words and taken away some of the letters.
Examples: Don't. I've. Shouldn't. He'd. We'll.
I don't think I need to ask you what each of the above stands for. This was a lesson I taught when I was tutoring in adult literacy. It was very common for students to see the word don't and read it aloud as do not. They knew what the apostrophe meant even if they couldn't use one when writing.
There IS NO RULE THREE saying you can use an apostrophe for a plural.
One last point:
A major hangup for people seems to be with its and it's. But if you remember rules 1 and 2, there should be no problem knowing which to use. (As long as your fingers cooperate.)
It's = it is. The apostrophe stands for a missing letter.
Its is possessive. The tree lost its leaves. The leaves belonged to the tree.
Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists. Look for Terry's newest release. DEADLY SECRETS, A Mapleton Mystery, is her first non-romantic suspense novel. To see all her books, visit her Web site. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.
Posted by Maryann Miller who also avoids character names ending in s.