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Bob Nailor

Apostrophes and Pronouns: A Confusing Combination
A guest post by Scott Bury

Bob has asked me to contribute a guest post that fits this theme of writing tips, so I thought I’d address a type of error that always makes me squirm: the incorrect use of the apostrophe.

For some reason, this is one of the most common types of mistakes I see. And getting a handle on the apostrophe can actually be quite simple.

The source of confusion is that in English, apostrophes are used for contraction as well as possession, and sometimes, also, for plurals.

But there are two simple factors that clarify this.

Factor the first: consistency

English is a language that seems to have more exceptions than rules. But when it comes to pronouns, the apostrophe always indicates a contraction. In other words, the apostrophe replaces a letter or two.

It’s = it is — “It’s cold in Winnipeg in January.”
Who’s = who is — “Who’s at the door?”
We’re = we are — “Open up! We’re freezing out here! This is Winnipeg, and it’s January!”
They’re = they are — “You’d better let them in. They’re confused about the date.”
You're = you are — "You're right. It's June, but it's unusually cold."

That means the respective homonyms without apostrophes are possessive.

Its = belonging to it — “The cat lost its toy under the couch.”
Whose = belonging to who — “Whose cat is that, anyway?”
Their = belonging to them — “They left their cat here because they didn’t want to bring it back to Winnipeg in January.”
Your = belonging to you — "Your cat is very fat."

Factor the second: apostrophes do not indicate plural

We’ve all seen apostrophe-s used to make a noun plural.

I hope you do what I do: I always carry a red pen to correct them.

I can understand some of the confusion. When I was growing up in the age of steam, many used apostrophes to pluralize single letters or symbols used as words in text and other unusual cases. For example:

While this makes sense when you listen to the pronunciation, it leads to confusion. So when I first became an editor, the new idea was to use italics to set off characters used as words and eliminate the apostrophe. To wit:

The change will take some getting used to, but I think it will reduce confusion among non-professional writers.

What do you think? By being careful about using apostrophes in combination with pronouns, can we writers bring about change and increase understanding, at least in this small way?

  Click to add a comment - say something!


James Prescott
Yes, yes, yes!! Thank you for this much needed post.
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Lisa Jey Davis
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Bob Nailor
Don't thank me, I'm just the messenger. Thank Scott, he wrote the article for this week. Again, thanks, Scott.
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Charles Dougherty
One of my pet peeves as well. I think it was Dave Barry who wrote that a lot of people must think an apostrophe means, "Watch out! Here comes an s."
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Diane Rapp
I blame popular culture for fracturing the rules and making people believe they're correct when they ARE NOT. Too many advertisements make bad grammar acceptable. Do you use the red pen on those signs? That's a great idea. I'll watch my contractions, try to avoid plurals, and hope I'm correct. Thanks.
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Scott Bury
Thanks for hosting me, Bob!
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Elyse Salpeter
I find that I mess this up with it's and its, but I'm getting it under control - thanks for the reminders.
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