According to John Seely in the ‘Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation’, there are two purposes of an apostrophe. Firstly “to show that one or more letters have been missed out” e.g. she’s (she has) and secondly “to show possession” e.g. the man’s car. Apparently it’s common that errors are made when using this punctuation mark, especially when using the word its or it’s, which I will come onto later.
1. Using the apostrophe when letters have been missed out
- He’s (he has)
- She’s (she has)
- Won’t (will not) – a strange one, because letters not only disappear in the shortened version, but they change from ‘ill to ‘o’. The apostrophe in this case means that one or more letters are missing.
- Don’t (do not)
- Shan’t (shall not) – again, the apostrophe represents more than one missing letter and they are not even shown together in the words shall not.
- Couldn’t (could not)
2. Using the apostrophe when showing that something belongs to someone or something (or showing possession)
The examples vary in where the apostrophe is placed. This is because there are different rules for plurals as well as words ending in the letter ‘s’.
- The cat’s tail
- The tree’s leaves
- Frankie’s large bag
- Jess’s fur coat (even though Jess is a name ending in ‘s’ you still add apostrophe then an s afterwards)
- The dress’s detail (even though the dress is a singular noun ending in ‘s’, you still add an apostrophe then s afterwards)
- Also, if the word that ends in ‘s’ is a plural then just an apostrophe is added and no s. Unfortunately I couldn’t think of an example of this on the spot.
The word it’s or its – an exception to the rule
The word ‘its’ is an exception – wedon’t include an apostrophe when showing possession. In fact, under no circumstances should there be an apostrophe. For example “her coat has lost its new feel”. The easiest way to remember the rule, is that if its cannot be translated to it is in the sentence, then it stays as its.
My thoughts: How hard it must be for children to learn the English language. Fancy shortening ‘will not’ to ‘won’t’ and having one rule for ‘its’ and another for most other possessive pronouns such as ‘cat’s’! For adults, it comes naturally and we can choose to write or say either option without even thinking.
I suppose you could take the easy option – if you really can’t decide if the word ‘its’ needs an apostrophe or not, you could just rearrange the words in the sentence. For example instead of writing ‘the magazine has its own contents page at the front’, you could write, ‘A contents page can be found at the front of the magazine’.
I don’t think I have an excuse to get any of it wrong now that I have spent the entire evening reading up about apostrophes. I feel that this is a learnable skill which can be mastered. Practise makes perfect though.
I’ve finished learning a lot later tonight, so I’d better sign off. If you have picked up just one tip from this blog, then it was all worth it.
Until tomorrow …
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John Seely The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA