Friday, August 22, 2008


The lowly apostrophe loves to shine but seldom takes center stage, while damn it, it’s the hardest working, least understood mark, and yet it retains its bubbly nature. How does the apostrophe keep its positive outlook and energetic, even electric personality? Let’s us just consider how put upon it is and yet it just keeps on giving….The most maligned, misused, misunderstood grammatical mark of them all and also the smallest yet self-made and courageous.

“Why do perfectly intelligent people, even geniuses, have a problem seeing the apostrophe much less using it properly?” --St. Ignatius of Tyrn 1402…

“Some of my best friends act as if they’re going under the knife when confronted with the use of the apostrophe….” --Dr. Lucius Derleth, MD 2004…

“Little’s changed since the MONKs figured out SYMBOLS for us all to ABIDE by in order to communicate in writing….” Author Robert W. Walker, 2007…

First reason the apostrophe causes confusion: it’s (that is IT IS) used for two separate and distinct purposes that’ve absolutely NADA to do with one ’nother. The simplest use is to show ownership in THINGS. Things he, she, we, they, us, him, her, them and Joe OWNS.
Ownership as in HIS THINGS or Joe’s things….ought to end all confusion there since if you SEE the connective tissue of ownership, like as if the apostrophe in ownership situations is a little arrow that points to what Joe owns. Joe’s Harley…Joe’s eyes…Joe’s girl…or Joe’s future. Who owns that future? Who’s hole is it anyway? Joe’s hole. He dug it. But it gets a bit complicated when it is not Joe or John or any name ending in a letter other than S….Damn, now what?

How do we deal with Phyllis’s stuff or James’ junk? Marcus, Jesus? Jesus and these others end in S but that does not make a noun or a name plural! ….if a name ends in S…then we’re looking at JESU’s if we put the apostrophe in the wrong place….pointing at the wrong letter….as in Phylli’s, Jame’s. Notice that if you don’t put the apostrophe pointing to the S, then you are cutting away at Jesus’ name! Another complication, it can be shown either way: Jesus’ or Jesus’s. In most modern usage we have dropped the double S for the sake of simplicity but my publisher WANTS it there thanks to the Chicago Manual of Style. All the same, there are not many names ending in S, so this should not be so hard for folks to follow.

The notion of single and plural plays havoc with people’s heads, however. People—or any GROUP designation like FAMILY already has PLURALness inherent, so adding the S can only mean ownership, not MORE plural. A green light doesn’t get any greener, nor does a plural word like jury get any pluralER…see? So it is the Jury’s decision and once again the apostrophe hugs the WHOLE word (like the whole name) and not an add on form….like Jurys’….which only works if you are talking about two or more juries…(unlikely).

But what of nouns that’re not names like teacher, lawyer, and aviator? Suppose you are talking about one lawyer’s briefcase? Then notice one lawyer ends with R….not S….while two lawyers’ briefcases shows the S on lawyer(S) see? So then it becomes: All of my teachers’ habits annoy me; or every one of my teachers’ habits annoy me. A single on TEACHER in that sentence CHANGES the meaning significantly. Again the issue of single\plural has a lot to do with where the apostrophe wants to fall…

Now the ownership thing ought be easy, folks! Ther’re only a handful of words in the whole freakin’ language that have OWNERSHIP built in already, like MY, MINE…His…Her…so these do not need the HELP of the lowly apostrophe. But Mike or Rob does if you’re’a speakin’a what Mike or Rob owns…so this is a major ‘juice’(use!) of the apostrophe. Another is to show emphasis as I did in de’ bad ‘joke’ around ‘juice’ buy nowadays this kind of emphasis calls for quotation marks or italics.

The second major ‘juice’ or ‘use’ of the ‘comma that leaps up atop words’ really screws with people’s heads, but I do not (don’t) know why it should. For instance, there’s an ITS that sits on the same plane as MY and his and hers, yours, mine, ours, theirs…for ownership built in is in ITS like MY. The only other IT’s in existence is a CONTRACTION….

Contractions ought be a simple affair. If you write this: ITS color is as strong as IT’s powerful….then you are using both ITS/IT’s in the same sentence. A good practice. Write TEN sentences using ITS and IT’s in same breath. “IT’s a smart dog that scratches ITS own fleas.”

Its\It’s is so instructive if you realize or see the pattern here. This is in a nutshell the two PRIMARY uses of the apostrophe. ITS, like HIS requires NO apostrophe ‘cause why? Because it has ownership built into IT same as Her. Whereas IT’s is two whole words shoved together, something American English loves to do, especially in dialogue. We all of us only learn if and when we see the connectiveness and the pattern of things—like words and apostrophes are like the pilot-fish following the shark. If you look REAL close, you’ll see that the apostrophe points toward what it modifies or changes. Tom is Tom but to modify Tom into changing from the subject of the sentence to what he owns as being the subject, Tom’s becomes necessary, so the subject becomes Tom’s lunatic brother… or Tom’s broken arm…

OK, hopefully ownership’s ugly head has been cut off thanks to this old grammarian’s ability to make it clear. As Stephen King’s illegitimate son, I think I can quote Dad faithfully by saying, “If you can’t make it sing, at least make it clear.” Apostrophes are your friend…a friend of the writer. Notice if I use an apostrophe, I can say A writer’s friend instead. How droll is it to read: The backdoor was squeaky and needed oil now. Much better to say, “The backdoor’s scream signaled years of neglect.”

Now onto the CONTRACTION in more detail. Read any one of my books and you’ll find people speak in contractions ‘cause we’re Americans. So if the apostrophe is not ON STAGE to show ownership, then it’s doing its second, UNRELATED job of POINTING out where in a word we’ve TOSSED out letters! The lowly lil’ apostrophe FILLS the GAPs, and sometimes these gaps are enormous. Don’t you see that the O is missing in DO NOT in Don’t so the apostrophe takes ITS place (not it’s--it is place)? OK, DON’t is too easy. ‘Cause ‘fraid we also speak in multiple contractions as in:

Mike would have loved to see Madeline’s upper body movement, but when he had attempted it, she clocked him so hard he had fallen into a coma.

Mike would’ve loved to see….etc. but when he’d etc…he’d fallen…etc.

I have used triples such as Mayn’t’ve, couldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve. NOTICE exactly the number of letters missing from these contractions: May not have…could not have, etc. So often the apostrophe is carrying the space of several missing letters, often four, five missing letters! Damn but this mark is strong….

So no longer do ya’ gotta’ wonder why a proper Britisher hates us for what we’ve done to the language. Much of it’s contractions as in “Wha’up?” from: What is up? So the apostrophe is a real workhorse! You can’t ignore it, can’t run from it, can’t hide. It’s ever’where its use is found and sometimes, too often, it’s used incorrectly. So WATCHA’ back and watch the signs as in Buck’s Gunshop.

All that said, in your novel use contractions liberally but never use an ownership apostrophe in a place where it does not ADD anything as in: The ocean’s floor….just ocean floor…or the Clock’s tower….if the Clock Tower works just as well…actually better. Ownership apostrophes help cut out long prepositional phrases as in this example:

After Paul stepped through the house’s front door, he heard the door’s hinges creak behind him as it closed.

Rather better to say: After stepping through the door, Paul heard it squeaking as it closed.

G’luck with grammar’s lowliest mark!
Rob Walker (


Timothy Hallinan said...


This pushes every irritable button I possess. When I was running a company, back in the old days, I finally sent a memo to all employees FORBIDDING THEM EVER TO WRITE IT'S under any circumstance. That left them with "its" and "it is," and the improvement was instantaneous and dramatic.

Every day on my run, I pass a nice house with a big sign out front that proclaims THE HUNT'S. So either the family is named HUNTS and they inherited this obscure apostrophe, or there's only one Hunt and he calls himself "The." Or their name is HUNT and they went to American public schools.

Morgan Mandel said...

Rob, if you save one person from doing that it's thing instead of its, you're doing a great service.

It's worth it for people to think twice before throwing in that apostrophe where it shouldn't be.

Morgan Mandel

Ashley Phillips said...

It's a smart dog that scratches its own damn fleas.

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