Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Grammar Point: The Apostrophe

A group I meet with has decided to review one point in grammar per week. The word apostrophe begins with  the letter a, so it's a good place to start our grammar review. Besides, a high school student asked me about apostrophes last week.

We speak of grammar rules, but grammatical standards is a more precise term, and for students, perhaps a little less intimidating than the word rule. As mentioned in my article Squeaking Chalk on the Blackboard, certain so-called rules may be accepted by one group and not another. And, like our language, styles can change over time. If I were a teenager, I believe that little fact would make me feel better about English classes. "On whose authority do you make that statement?" I could ask.

We learn best by starting with what we know. The apostrophe is...

...well, you know what it is, right? It is a punctuation mark that used to look like comma but it's placement was just above the lowercase letter was it placed next to. Now, on most keyboards the same punctuation  mark ( ' ) is used for the apostrophe and single quotation mark.

Think of it as a signal. It has three main functions:
  1. To indicate possession of nouns.
  2. To signal that letters are left out of a word. 
  3. To prevent confusion for readers who encounter certain plurals.
ONE: The apostrophe signals or indicates possession of a noun.

  • That toy mouse belongs to KittyCat. That is KittyCat's toy mouse. 
    • (Note: write the noun, then an apostrophe followed by the letter s.)
What if the words toy mouse are not stated?
  • Don't discard that grungy toy mouse; it is KittyCat's.
    • (Note: write it as described above, because toy mouse is understood and does not need to be repeated. 
But what happens if KittyCat must share ownership of the toy mouse with other cats?
  • That toy mouse belongs to the cats. That is the cats' toy mouse.
    • (Note: write the plural noun; then add the apostrophe. Do not add an extra s.
What if the cats who share the mouse are named?
  • That mouse belongs to Snook and KittyCat. It is Snook and KitttyCat's.
    • (To help you remember, think of a similar usage, as we went to John and Mary's last night.)
 And if they don't share an item? 
  • Snook's and KittyCat's food are labeled. They do not share because KittyCat is on a diet. 
TWO: The apostrophe is used for a contraction. That is, it takes place of letters left out of a word.

  • We are leaving now. We're leaving now.
    • (Note: similarly the following are correct: they're for they are she's for she is, and so forth)
Question: Why do teachers sometimes bleed over words like its, they're, we're and others?
Half answer: The issue probably deals with homonyms and homophones. Think: if you could write "he is," then he's is acceptable in informal English. Similarly, use we're for we are, they'll for they will. and so forth.

THREE: The apostrophe is used in certain plurals to prevent confusion for the reader.

  • In cursive writing, if you fail to cross the letter t, it looks like the letter l. If you don't cross your t's, they look like l's
    • (Note: without the apostrophe, a ts or ls looks like a misspelled word.) 
What if you are talking about uppercase letters?

  • He knew his ABCs by age three. 
    • (Note: when letters are capitalized, there should be no confusion for the reader, so the apostrophe is not necessary.)
Websites: Put the word apostrophe in your search box, and you will find plenty of information by grammarians who do not always agree with one another. I think students will like because it is fun to read. When learning's (or learning is) fun, it's (or it is) easier to remember what you read.

Warning: the apostrophe explanation is good, but elsewhere on that particular site, however, I find the language offensive.  

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