When I think of apostrophes, I think of riding in the backseat of our green, split-windshield Chevy on the Route 1 bridge across the Raritan River. That’s because when I was a second-grader, reading in the car, I asked my dad how to pronounce I-S-A-A-C-that comma thing but up in the air-S. He insisted I dredge the word up out of my memory instead of helping me out. Thanks a lot, Dad.
Apostrophe usage can be broken down into two main categories—as a stand in for dropped letters in contractions or dropped figures in dates (can’t, didn’t, ‘tis, the ‘80s) or in non-standard English (Look ‘ere, mate); or as an indication of the possessive (the cat’s bowl, Isaac’s book). Both seem relatively straightforward, but hey, we’re dealing with the English language here. It’s always more complicated than it seems. For today, I’ll just look at the apostrophe as a substitute. Next week I’ll tackle those pugnacious possessives.
[While I’m here, let me point something out. Notice that all but three of the above apostrophes have the tail pointing down and to the left. That’s as it should be. But many word processing programs treat an apostrophe at the start of a word (‘tis, ‘80s, ‘ere) like an opening single quote, with the tail pointing up and to the right. What a pain. Your work will look more professional and your editors will bless you if you correct this error. Here’s a tip: click CTRL + the apostrophe, release, then type the apostrophe. This tip also works when you need close quotes after a dash. The program will want to use opening quotes. Just click CTRL + Shift + quote key then release and type the quote. Ta-da!]
Contractions shouldn’t (should not) be much of a problem. We use them all the time. They’re (they are) often associated with forms of the verbs to be, to have, the various forms of will, would, should and with the negative not. Some examples:
I’m (I am)
You’re (you are)
It’s (it is)
We’ve (we have)
They’d (they had or they would)
Shouldn’t, wouldn’t, won’t, aren’t, haven’t, hadn’t
You can have double contractions. They’d’ve for they would have is somewhat colloquial but perfectly acceptable.
Its vs. it’s
Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” Every dog has its day. It’s is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” It’s a three dog night. It’s been a hard day’s night.
Your vs. you’re
Your is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to you.” Is that your dog? You’re is a contraction for “you are.” You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice, and you’re Daddy’s little girl.”
Their vs. they’re vs. thereTheir is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to them.” Their dog chases my chickens. They’re is a contraction for “they are.” They’re afraid of dogs. There is an adverb meaning “in that place” (Stand over there) or a pronoun used to introduce a sentence or clause (There is no reason to confuse these words).
For a delightful excursion into the history and use of apostrophes, check out Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I promise you’ve never laughed so hard about punctuation.
Next week: Why I refuse to eat at Athen’s (sic) Pizza.