It’s the time of year that many English teachers and other lovers of the language bemoan: the arrival of holiday cards that signify just how little their families and acquaintances know about their mother tongue. How could this situation persist?
Most people purchase a variety of cards that require no more than their signature to express their heartfelt goodwill for the approaching season. Yet they still manage to mangle the language by including the one punctuation mark that they don’t need—the apostrophe. They unwittingly employ it whenever they sign their names: the Smith’s, the Jones’, the White’s, etcetera, cheerfully (if inadvertently) indicating that they own something—but what?
Why do people insist on including the apostrophe, when they don’t need it? Do they think that it’s a shortcut for the plural? In short—how can such a small mark cause such massive misunderstanding?
For the record: apostrophes have several useful purposes.
The two most common include showing ownership and indicating the omission of
letters. That rule seems clear enough, as in the following sentence: It’s six o’clock, and I’m about to put my family’s dinner on the table.
The first three apostrophes indicate letter omission, and the last shows
possession. Compare that sentence to the following: It’s seven o’clock, so most of us are washing our families’ dishes.
Notice how the plural possessive differs from the singular form—families’
vs. family’s. Admittedly, grammar and punctuation rules often have exceptions, as in: We’re hoping to have the children’s homework assignments completed before my boss’s teleconference. Whew!
Another common abuse of apostrophes appears with the possessive pronoun, particularly the word “its.” Most people who would never dare to write his’s, her’s, their’s, or our’s to indicate ownership readily interchange it’s for its.
Why? Here’s a simple rule:
Possessive pronouns NEVER use apostrophes. That rule is as unambiguous as one
can find in English, yet one of the most abused. The word it’s remains the contraction (shortened form) of the words it is. Yet look around to find various misuses of these two words: “HOHO’S is having it’s annual sale! or Its time for saving’s at HOHO’S department store!” YIKES!
Can you find the errors in the following sentence?
Avoid sending cards’ with unnecessary apostrophe’s!
During the upcoming card exchange season, please carefully consider those who love the language. Remember: An apostrophe is not merely decorative, placed hither and yon to adorn letters and cards. It does serve a purpose, and that is NOT to form the plurals of words and names.
Not the comma, on the other hand...ah, but that’s a tale for another time.