December 5 2013 Editor Assistance Newsletter
Apostrophes, or the up-hanging tick mark (') in a sentence, can be one of those make-it-or-break-it issues for a writer. If an apostrophe is used properly, it's invisible. The reader doesn't even notice it's there. However, if an apostrophe is used improperly - especially if it happens multiple times in a row - this can cause a reader to leave, never to return.
An apostrophe is used when a person owns something.
Bob's chromatic dragon
The lady's origami lotus flower
There can be confusion involving names ending in the letter S. It is always wisest to use an apostrophe for those names as well. The purpose of punctuation is to add clarity. Using an apostrophe for possession is adding meaning to a sentence. So you do want to say:
James's gelatinous cube
Miss Ross's pet cerulean unicorn
The sole exception here - for historical reasons - is with Jesus and Moses. If you are writing about these men you say
Jesus' and Moses'
without a following S.
Possessions – Plural:
When multiple people own something, you still need an apostrophe. However, the plural form moves the apostrophe to after the S which is denoting the plural. So - again only if there are multiple people involved - you would say:
The girls' fuchsia shoes
The fifteen students' patchouli-filled dorm rooms
The only time you should ever use an apostrophe in a contraction is if you could also properly say the phrase with two separate words in place of the one contracted word. This is an easy test to apply. So you should be able to do:
I shouldn't take Jose the Biker to Locke-Ober -> I should not take Jose the Biker to Locke-Ober
He isn't spitting his oysters out on his plate -> He is not spitting his oysters out on his plate
It's a lovely day to take a duck boat ride instead -> It is a lovely day to take a duck boat ride instead
This last case deserves special note because this relates to an error many new writers make, and it is one that they absolutely need to fix. The only time that you should ever use "it's" is if you could say "it is" in the exact same spot. The possessive words
his hers its
never use apostrophes. Only ever use an apostrophe if it is connecting two distinct words together.
The above three situations are the only times you use apostrophes.
You do not use apostrophes for plurals, ever. So whether you are talking about the Roaring 40s or the paisley-filled 1970s there are no apostrophes there. You are showing a plural of the years.
Take the time to learn the rules of apostrophes. They can be that final polishing step that brings your writing to the next level!
Lisa Shea, owner
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