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Grammar: Apostrophes are easy!

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One of my biggest grammar pet peeves is the misuse of apostrophes. People seem to think that these little punctuation marks can be added wherever they like, or maybe that they make words look more impressive somehow. (How many times have you seen a sign like this: “Vegetable’s for sale.”)

Apostrophes are surprisingly easy to use, because there are two – yes, only two – reasons to use an apostrophe. If you remember these two – yes, only two – reasons, you will never misuse an apostrophe again.

Reason #1: Contractions

The first reason to use an apostrophe is in a contraction. A contraction is where two words are combined (“have,” “not,” and the various forms of the verb “to be”), and the apostrophe is the type of punctuation used to do the combining.

Examples: “didn’t – did not,” “they’ve – they have,” “it’s – it is,” “she’s – she is,” “we’re – we are,” etc.

This reason is pretty straightforward and easy to remember. You can test for correct apostrophe usage by seeing if you can separate it back into the two words. “We didn’t leave.” “We did not leave.”

Reason #2: Possessive

The second reason to use an apostrophe is to show possession. One noun “owns” or “has” another noun. This is usually shown by adding an apostrophe and then an “s” at the end of the word.

Examples: “Sharon’s desk,” “Bob’s blanket,” “the family’s car,” etc.

Or if the word already ends in an “s,” (usually because it’s plural), you can add just an apostrophe at the end of the word.

Examples: “The families’ shared vacation home,” “James’ favorite color,” “the cats’ double bed,” etc.

You can test for correct apostrophe usage by asking what the first noun owns. “Sharon’s what? Sharon’s desk.” “The families’ what? The families’ shared vacation home.”

Where this one gets tricky is that there’s one type of word that does NOT use an apostrophe to make it possessive: pronouns.

That’s right. If you’re trying to say that the book belongs to her, you say it is “The book is hers.” No apostrophe. Or if you want to say that the book’s cover is red, you say “Its cover is red.” No apostrophe.

It’s pretty easy to remember not to use an apostrophe with “him,” “her,” “our,” etc. The one that most often trips people up is “its.” This is because those same letters are used with an apostrophe for a contraction (Reason #1!) “it’s – it is.”

But it’s an easy check: the only time you need an apostrophe in “its” is if you can split it out to be “it is.” So if you see “it’s,” try to replace it with “it is.” If it works, you have a contraction (Reason #1), and you’re fine. If it doesn’t work, you are using it as a pronoun and showing possession, which means no apostrophe. (I go into more detail on “its” vs. “it’s” at the end of this earlier column.)

So for proper apostrophe use, simply remember the two reasons (yes, only two!): Contraction or Possessive. And then do the easy tests.

Take my example at the beginning: “Vegetable’s for sale.” You can see it’s not a contraction (Vegetables is for sale?), so the apostrophe isn’t for Reason #1. How about possessive? Nope, not Reason #2 either (Vegetable’s what? Vegetables for?). This apostrophe isn’t needed.

Increase the clarity of your writing by making sure you’re using your apostrophes correctly!

Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction. Rachel also works as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Learn more at www.rachelmichaels.com.

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