Whose apostrophe?

For such a tiny punctuation mark, the apostrophe has an enormous tendency to confuse and irritate people.

The reaction to this all-too-common frustration is generally one of two extremes. The first is to try to cut them out altogether (as Birmingham council recently planned to do). The alternative is to start sprinkling them as liberally as an overzealous Italian waiter sprinkles black pepper. Then, at least, a few of them are likely to hit the right spot.

The problem with such excessive – or minimal – seasoning is that the overall effect of the dish (or document) will be compromised, or even completely undermined.

Possessive apostrophes

One of the apostrophe’s key jobs is to show possession. More specifically, it shows who possesses something. And identifying the ‘who’ in the sentence will make inserting the apostrophe and the -s (if needed – see below) that much simpler: just look to the end of the ‘who’ word, and add them afterwards. For example:

The cat’s top hat and bow-tie were very distinguished.

Here there’s clearly one well-dressed cat. But if there were two, or more, such dapper felines, each with their own outfits, it would be:

The cats’ dinner jackets and fob watches were to die for.

You’ll notice that there’s no need for an extra -s when the ‘who’ in possession is made plural. Though with a word that is inherently plural, you would. So:

The children’s cats’ dress sense was not to everyone’s taste.

So far, so straightforward. But there are a few points of potential confusion left yet.

Possessive pronouns

This is actually quite simple. Possessive pronouns (yours, whose, his, hers, theirs) will never need an apostrophe, because they don’t need any extra help to show possession. You might say:

Whose apostrophe? Certainly not yours.

‘Its’ meaning ‘belonging to it’ can also be put in the pronoun category: it doesn’t need an apostrophe. It’s entirely understandable to assume it would, by following the rule laid out above, but ‘it’s’ always means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ – where the apostrophe indicates the contraction (missed out letters).

‘S’ names

When a name ends in –s, such as James, Tess or Emphasis, it may not be necessary to include the –s after the apostrophe. Rhythm is the secret here, and sometimes either way is fine. Generally, try saying the phrase aloud to see what sounds best (and what doesn’t make you sound like a snake with a stutter). For example:

Tess’s favourite route to work was down St James’s street. Mind you, Emphasis’ top-notch trainers make it clear that it could also be written St James’ street.

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