Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Be My Guest - Terry Odell

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.

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23 comments :

  1. All those holiday greetings addressed to The Greer's. Sigh. But I have to say, it's so ubiquitous online, sometimes I catch myself throwing one in where it doesn't belong and I'm sure it's just a subtle form of programming from seeing it used incorrectly. It's easy to confuse aging people. ;)

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  2. So true, Dani. I think we're conditioned to see apostrophes when people use family names.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  3. Apostrophe misuse ranks near the top on my personal urk-meter. This is a great post, Terry.

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  4. Elspeth - bugs the heck out of me, too. It's not THAT hard to learn those two rules.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  5. The trouble with rule one is that sometimes possession doesn't use an apostrophe. All nouns need one, but pronouns don't. There isn't much scope for confusion with my, our, his, or her, but then you come to your (not you're), its (not it's), their (not they're), and whose (not who's).

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  6. Fennel Giraffe: If people follow rule 2, though, they should understand that you're is "you are" and who's is "who is" (apostrophe replacing extra stuff, rather than possessive. At least that helps me make sure I've got the right word in there.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  7. Wonderful post, Terry. I'm glad you brought up the issue of possessive apostrophes with names ending in S. I've gone back and forth on whether I prefer the apostrophe alone or the 's and (like you) I lean toward keeping it simple with just the apostrophe.

    Wow, I don't think I've ever been more aware of how many apostrophes I typed into a blog comment. :)

    ~ Cleo Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

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  8. Thanks, Cleo - and there weren't many apostrophes in your comment, but glad you were aware of them!

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. I go out of my way to avoid creating characters with names that end in 'S' as well ... sure wish my parents would've, too.

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  11. Well, Chris, you could go by Christopher, right? I just checked my spreadsheet for character names in the current WIP. None end in S. I think the avoidance is now ingrained.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  12. So I'm friends with a married couple with the last name of Woods.

    Would I refer to them as the Woodses? Or just the Woods? Woodi?

    And how do I possessive-ify it? Woodses'? That looks really awkward to me :(

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  13. thepopeofbeers - You would go to the Woods's house. But you'd say, "The Woodses have three children."

    Or I'd just say, "I'm going to visit Tom and Mary."

    You can look at this link

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  14. Great discussion, Terry! These are reminders we all need. It's often "little" things like this that make the difference between enchanting our readers with our well-written work or turning them off with our ungrammatical mediocrity.

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  15. I love this post! Just like Elspeth, it's a huge pet peeve of mine to see apostrophes misused. I never realized how much of a stickler I was for things like this 'til I got into the online world. Misuse is all over the place here! (That makes me wonder: does til require an apostrophe or not? I think it would fall into the 'replaces stuff' category.)

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  16. Linda - So true - we owe it to our readers to learn our craft and create as "perfect" a product as possible. (and having a good editor helps, too)

    Donelle - I'd have to look it up. "til" might be acceptable as a word in itself.

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  17. I sometimes have to stop and think on it's and its. I read what I want it to be as in is it possesive or contraction. Question where does the apostrophe go in James and Laura's house? James' and Laura's house? Something I see mixed is homemade vs homemaid. I saw a sign for HOMEMAID tamales and I wanted to tell them no no no it is HomeMADE as in you made them at home. Unless your MAID MADe them hehehehehe.

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  18. Kathy - I try to work around that question (or wait for my editor). But I THINK it's James's and Laura's house. I'd probably just say, "We're going to visit James and Laura" (I'm sure one of the professional editors here will step in with the grammatically correct usage.)

    I think menus are a goldmine of typos.

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  19. Don't forget to mind your ps and qs, too. Hmm.

    Also, it's can also be a contraction for it has, as in, "It's been a long day."

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  20. Adrian - when I read the ARC for my next Blackthorne, Inc. book, I noticed I'd used "dotting I's and crossing T's" in the text. Neither my editor or their copy editor had minded, but I did flag it for final edits without the apostrophes.

    And yes, you're right about it has. That's why I always think of the "missing stuff" rule when I'm dealing with its/it's.

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  21. Great post, Terry. Another common misuse is with decades. The 1960's is incorrect; 1960s is correct (or, simply, "the sixties"). I noticed that Word's spell/grammar check believes both of these are correct, so don't expect any help there. The proofreader in Apple's Pages correctly suggests you remove the apostrophe.

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  22. This post is very well written, and it also contains many useful facts. I appreciate your distinguished way of writing the post. Keep up the good work. Thanks

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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