Apostrophes: What possessed me to write this?
by Trista Cornelius
I started this article thinking I would give a simple overview of apostrophe rules and point out a murky area.
Three days later, I’m still reading about the apostrophe. This punctuation mark comes with some heavy baggage.
First, some apostrophe history
The apostrophe began as a symbol of omission: a little mark to show a letter or two had been left out, like in modern-day contractions such as it’s for it is.
It’s unclear why the apostrophe began to denote possession; however, one humorous theory helps explain how this little mark can mean something as important as ownership.
In her popular book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss suggests the possessive apostrophe arrived when it began to replace “his” in things like “Alfred-his-horse” or “Jordan-his-efforts.” So the apostrophe replaces “hi” and leaves the -s to denote possession.
Alfred-his-horse ran away and Jordan-his-efforts to capture him were for nought.
Alfred’s horse ran away and Jordan’s efforts to capture him were for nought.
Truss goes on to say that there is no proof of this theory, but I find it useful for remembering the difference between possessive apostrophes (the apostrophe replaces “her,” “his,” or “its”), apostrophes in contractions, and simple plural nouns.
So, the apostrophe either denotes missing letters or numbers, or it signifies ownership.
Plural nouns versus possessive nouns
The apostrophe is often used where it is not needed and left out where it is needed. For example:
Cornelia hung the sheet’s on the line to dry in the sun and girls plaid dresses fluttered in the wind.
The sheets don’t possess anything; they’re simply plural (more than one sheet), so the apostrophe is not needed. The girls, however, own their plaid dresses, so this noun is both plural and possessive and needs both the -s and the apostrophe: the girls’ plaid dresses. Hence,
Cornelia hung the sheets on the line to dry in the sun and girls’ plaid dresses fluttered in the wind.
The same goes for numbers:
In the 1980’s, most people on the block hung their sheets out to dry outside.
There is no need for the apostrophe here – unless, of course, you omit the “19.” Then you need one before the remaining number: 80s. As with sheets, the 1980s are not in possession of anything as they would be here:
The 1980’s hairdos differ dramatically from hairdos of this era – thank goodness for that.
Singular possessive nouns
Okay, so plural nouns don’t need apostrophes, but all possessive nouns do. A singular noun needs an ’s added to the end to make it possessive.
The flowered skirt’s color started to fade after only an hour in the sun.
Here, the skirt owns its color and the apostrophe tells the reader this without your having to write:
The color that belonged to the flowered skirt faded.
If a singular noun ends in -s, like waitress, still add an ’s to make it possessive:
The waitress’s apron waved stiffly in the warm breeze.
(However, this will become more complicated in next month’s article.)
If a noun is both plural and possessive, you have a few options:
Add -s to make the noun plural and the apostrophe after the -s to make it possessive. The apostrophe ends up hanging out there in the wind, un-partnered and a little wobbly looking, but correct. For example:
The three sheets’ bright colors reflected the sun and made the yard look pink.
Add -es to make the noun plural and add the apostrophe after it:
The four waitresses’ aprons remained stained after several washings.
Add ’s if the noun is already plural like children, men, women:
Cornelia asked where the women’s restroom was located, but we pointed her in the wrong direction and she wound up in the men’s room.
Not plural, not singular, but two nouns owning something together:
If Claire and Cornelia own a car together, they share one possessive apostrophe attached to whomever’s name comes second in the sentence:
When it snows, Claire and Cornelia’s car gets weighted down with Claire’s and Cornelia’s heavy purses in the trunk.
The apostrophes show Claire and Cornelia own one car together, but they each have their own purse.
The troubling matter of its versus it’s
The contraction it’s must have already existed when apostrophes came to mean possession. Because it’s already meant it is and the pronoun its (without a possessive apostrophe) came to signify ownership, like “The cat swished its tail.”
When Claire dropped her purse and its contents thunked loudly, Cornelia sighed, “It’s time to pack a little lighter, dearie.”
I could say the same thing to the apostrophe: It’s time to pack lighter. This little mark manages its burdens well until we get to names ending in –s. This is such a troubling matter that it will be the topic of next month’s column.
While I’m still sussing out the rules, post in the comments sections other apostrophe or grammar conundrums you’ve faced that you’d like answers to— or at least some empathetic commentary on – and I’ll address these in future columns.
This is the eighth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!