Saturday, 24 May 2014

We Need to Talk About Apostrophe’s - Liz Kessler

Before I start, let me just make two points. The first is…yes the apostrophe in the title was a joke, not a mistake.

The second point is this: We only know what we know, and I don’t think that it’s up to anyone else to mock us for the gaps in our knowledge.

To underline this point, let me put myself and my own ignorance out there for you.

I rarely read a newspaper nowadays. I stopped quite a few years ago when I found that it was too full of horrific things being done to people – usually children – and it took me days to get over each horrible item I read. This means that, nowadays, I rarely know what’s going on in the world and I often don’t know who people are when I probably should do. I’m not saying I’m completely clueless about politics or the world* but there are gaps in my knowledge which some people could find painful.

Equally, yes, I admit it, I am pained by some of the grammatical gaps in knowledge that I see around me every day. But just as I hope people don’t judge me too harshly for my gaps, I don’t blame the perpetrators of these grammar slips (let’s not call them crimes). But I do want to do my bit towards helping put them right.

The main one that bugs me, and the one that is probably the most badly abused and misused little squiggle in the world, is, of course the apostrophe. But how do you do anything about this without upsetting people, losing friends and generally getting a reputation as a grammatically uptight know-it-all?

The answer is – or might be – you write an ABBA post about it!

I think that most of the people who follow this blog are writers, bloggers, teachers, librarians etc. As such, I'm sure most of you know exactly how to use apostrophes. But I bet you’ve all got a friend who has at some point sent you a text saying “Hope your OK” and you’ve bitten your lip and replied to their kind sentiment rather than replying, as you might have wanted to, “Hope YOU’RE OK! YOU’RE YOU’RE YOU’RE!!!!!!”

So, right. I'm obviously not doing this for you. I'm not even doing it for your friends because, to be honest, most of them probably KNOW how to use apostrophes; they just don't care quite as much as I do if they accidentally use them incorrectly from time to time. Let's just say I'm doing it on the off chance that there's an occasional reader of this blog who's never been a hundred per cent sure when and where to put their apostrophes but is way past the point where it's deemed acceptable to ask. Like I would feel about, say, asking who's the shadow chancellor or something like that.

And yeah, I'm doing it for me. Partly just to get it out of my system and share my pain because I’m tired of seeing things like this around the place and weeping silently to myself.

With thanks to Candy Gourlay and Fiona Dunbar, who suggested that it might mean you literally get a dog's welcome - i.e. a lick on the face and a sniff of your bum - with your Cornish Cream Tea.

And partly because, actually, I've always quite fancied writing a guide to the correct usage of apostrophes.

So here is my (very brief) guide to the correct usage of apostrophes. 

For those of who don’t care, don’t have a problem with this or would rather move on to the next blog with the cute kitten photos on it** please skip the section in blue.

OK. Apostrophes have two main uses.

1. To show possession of something. Here’s how you do that.

Look at your sentence and decide who or what is the person (or animal or thing) that is owning the other thing. When you know who that is, put your apostrophe after it.

For example…

The boy’s toys. (All the toys are owned by one boy.)
The boys’ toys. (All the toys are owned by a group of boys.)

The lady’s house. (One lady lives there.)
The ladies’ house. (A house where lots of ladies live.) (Make of that what you will.)

A missing apostrophe at the Edinburgh Book Festival - just to show that even the experts make mistakes.

The only real exceptions, where you indicate possession without an apostrophe despite the word looking as if it might want one, are “its” and “your”.

Without getting into extended discussions about possessive pronouns, just remember, if they are being used in the context of possession, the words “its” and “your” do not EVER need an apostrophe. OK?

For example…

The cat licked its paw.
Your hair looks nice today.

No apostrophe. Think of the “its” and the “your” in this context in the same way as if they were “his” or “her” or “my”. No apostrophe.

The ONLY times that “its” becomes “it’s” or “your” becomes “you’re” are when they fit into rule number two…

2. To indicate that a letter (or letters) have been left out.

For example…

It’s an interesting blog but can we move on now please?

Same with “your” and “you’re”. If you are using the word instead of “you are” it is always “you’re”. Never (ever ever) “your”. Ever.

Hope you’re OK.
You’re a star.
You’re starting to labour the point a bit now.

And finally, there is NEVER any need to use an apostrophe just because something is a plural. Never. Never. Never.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

OK, that's the end of my lesson. You can come back now.

If in doubt, the main things to remember are:

1. If you are married to a writer/English teacher/other grammatically-obsessed person, you may need to double check your Facebook status updates before posting them, just to be on the safe side.

2. If you are a friend of a writer/English teacher/etc and are asking after their health, please bear in mind that your correct use of apostrophes in the phrase “Hope you’re OK” (as opposed to the incorrect “Hope your OK”) will be at least as pleasing to them as the fact that you are thinking about them. Probably a little more, actually.

3. If you live in a small seaside town in Cornwall and are in the process of writing your menus for this year’s summer season, please send them my way before going to press. I will happily proof read them for free, and you will have no need to hurt people’s eyes with your pizza’s or pastie’s.

Thanks for reading! 

* Especially now. In fact, I found the results of this week's elections and the advances made by far right organisations so horrifying and scary that the twenty-something-year-old me, who was very loud and active and political and who is still in there underneath everything else, is definitely planning a comeback.

** I think I might have implied that there were going to be photos of cute kittens. Just in case you were holding on for that, here you go...

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Stroppy Author said...

That kitten's a bit scary - I feel cheated.
Will add this to my list of useful websites for students who need to be force-fed apostrophes until they choke :-)

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks Stroppy! :)

The kitten was from 'Emergency cute kittens' or something so I was pretty sure it would do the job. Sorry it scared you. I should stick to Dalmatians. :) xx

JO said...

I'll be beside you on the anti-UKIP barricade - and in the apostrophe police!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks Liz - just this week I was trying to think how to refer to two people both called Sue. Now I know! Two Sues. I feel clean inside!

Anne Cassidy said...

I so don't agree with such pedantry! In the scheme of things does it really matter if an apostrophe is in the wrong place? If a surgeon gets something wrong then it matters. If someone has an apostrophe in 'banana's' what different does it actually make to a single person's life? None. Of course there are rules and structures that we all agree to in a society but if they go wrong does it really matter? I am usually blessed with great editors who mop up the dozens of mistakes in my work. That's their job. I was an English teacher and I got very fed up with the 'perfect grammar' clique. Sorry Liz.

Liz Kessler said...

Anne, no need to apologise. I totally understand where you're coming from, and I don't like people who mock others for this kind of thing - which is why I tried to do it in a semi-joking way, but not laughing AT anyone. And why I put my own ignorance out on the table too!

But I disagree about it not mattering. Yes of course, 'in the scheme of things' it's not the most important thing in the world. (Unlike the point under my first asterisk, for example.) But as a writer, I kinda think that it's OK for me to care about this. If the writers and the teachers don't care about it, there aren't a lot of others who will. And I don't think that it's wrong - or even overly pedantic - to want people to be able to communicate effectively.

But I understand your point of view, and do have some sympathy with it - especially when it comes to people being cliquey. That is never a nice thing.

Anonymous said...

Apostrophes are not difficult. What's difficult is getting people to care about using them correctly. Maybe we just have to accept that for some of us a misplaced one sets our teeth on edge, while for others it doesn't cause the least discomfort.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

It doesn't bother me as much as it seems to bother you, but it's the kind of thing that does make a manuscript more likely to be rejected by a publisher, so this is very useful especially for potential debut authors. I find with my students that the quickest way is to make them think about 'substitutions', of the kind that you talk about. 'Could you replace it with "my"? Or could you replace it with "it is"?'. Some of them had never thought of it that way, and often it clicks.

Sue Bursztynski said...

You know what's REALLY annoying? When you do know how to use the apostrophe and the stupid prediction software keeps changing its to it's! And it does matter. This is communication and if you get it wrong sometimes you have some unexpected results. A missing comma in one magazine, for example, told us that the nice lady on the cover found inspiration in cooking her family and her dog. ;-)

Mostly, I feel irritated when I'm reading slush and the author keeps getting the punctuation wrong; it tells me they didn't care enough to make sure they'd got it right. I try to read the story all the way through anyway, but I haven't yet found a story with a million errors that was well written enough to pass on to the next round of reading anyway.

Richard said...

You're preaching to the choir here, but I think you missed one.

Plurals of non-words historically have used the apostrophe, and although the 1960's and TLA's are not considered good form any more, I would still argue for lower-case single letters. As in how many a's are there in this sentence?

The software engineer in me would argue for 'a's, but I think that might raise more hackles than it calmed.

I'm a moderator over on the Raspberry Pi forum. If you haven't heard about it, the Raspberry Pi is a fully functional computer for £25, targeted at children, with a view to bringing back the good old days when kids had a computer of their own that they could learn to program. It's been picked up by the media-centre and embedded system people too.

The problem is, what do you call two of them? So far we're holding out and using alternatives, but it's very tempting to put that apostrophe in.

June said...

Could you possibly write a post about the use of 'these-ones' instead of 'these'? Even the BBC reporters have started saying it.
And 'different from' not 'different to'.

I'm not perfect either, and I agree, as long as communication is happening and understood all is well. There is a place for correct grammar though.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Richard, I think there's no reason why you can't speak of two Raspberry Pi's or two a's, when you think of what would happen when you add an extra s to either of these.;-) Again, it's a matter of communication and in this case the apostrophes communicate correctly what you mean.

Heather Dyer said...

I'm with you on the newspapers, too... :(

But here's something that will make you laugh - a VERY funny and powerful UKIP skit by Stewart Lee, think it's worth sharing: