Monday, June 18, 2012

The Superfluous Apostrophe

Today's English Class Pop Quiz:Which of these sentences contains an error in 
apostrophe usage?
  1. John's brothers are named Floyd and Herman.
  2. We are eating pickle's and turnip's for supper tonight.
  3. All of these jars' expiration dates have passed.
The answer is at the end of this post. Now read this:

Friends, there is an epidemic. It's been going on for years and shows no signs of getting better. It is found  in our elementary schools, secondary schools, and on our college campuses. It's even more prevalent in our grocery stores! You've seen signs of it everywhere. Some of you don't even recognize this dread plague when you see it, but others of you are working desperately to stamp it out:

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at
Yes, dear readers, it is the dreaded Superfluous Apostrophe, and it is associated with dead and dying brain cells all over our land. And Canada too!

For those of you unfamiliar with this condition, let me start with a couple definitions:
Superfluous: (adjective) extra; unnecessary
Superfluous Apostrophe: WRONG!!! Stop using apostrophes all over the place, willy-nilly!

 That's right; the apostrophe is critically overused. There is a correct way to use the apostrophe and throwing one in front of every final 's' in a word is not it.

First, let's discuss the correct usage of the apostrophe. There are two really good places to use one. Use an apostrophe to help form a contraction, or use an apostrophe to show possession/ownership. Here come the examples:

Using apostrophes to form contractions:

 In speaking and informal writing we often shorten (contract) words. Usually we make one word out of two. For example "I am" is shortened to "I'm" or "is not" becomes "isn't." Those shortened forms are called contractions. There are three steps in the process of making a contraction:
  1.  Remove a letter or letters (the a in am)
  2. Replace the missing  letter(s) with an apostrophe
  3. Slam the two words together! 
I am
I 'm
Notice that the apostrophe is taking the place of one or more missing letters. Many of my students think that the apostrophe goes where the two words are joined. It would appear so in the example of "I am," but in the case of "is not," we can see that the apostrophe goes between the n and the t where the o was removed. It does NOT go between the s and the n at the joining of the two words.

Is not
Is n't

So that's use number one. What about use number two?

Using an apostrophe to show possession/ownership

I think this usage is the one that causes the most confusion. We show possession by adding an apostrophe followed by the letter 's' to a singular noun. Because of this, people seem to want to always add an apostrophe any time they add an 's' to the end of a word. THIS is what drives literary types insane because it's just so simple to see the difference. Let's see if I can explain.

  1. I have a dog. 
  2. My dog's name is Rover. 
  3. You have two dogs
  4. Your dogs' names are Harvey and Jake.                                                       
Notice that in sentence 3 I am talking about more than one dog, so I've added an 's' to make 'dog' plural: dogs. There is no apostrophe necessary. An apostrophe here would be wrong!

Sentences 2 and 4, on the other hand, are showing that the dog or dogs in question possess something-- their names. Sentence number two is about the name possessed by one dog; all I had to do was add an apostrophe + s. 

Sentence number 4 is a little different because I want to make it clear we're talking about something belonging to more than one dog. Because of that, I add the 's' to show it's a plural (two dogs), and then I add the apostrophe to show possession. 

That's the simplest explanation of correct apostrophe use. In my next post, I'll explain some of the trickier aspects of using them correctly.

Pop Quiz Answer: Sentence #2 is incorrect. There is no need for an apostrophe anywhere in that sentence. Not only is the punctuation incorrect, the whole idea is incorrect! Pickles and turnips for dinner? I may be ill.

So, how'd you do? Did everything make sense? Clear as mud? What can I clarify? Trust me; we're not finished with apostrophes in only one post!

Hanging out with the excellent writers at Yeah Write!

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  1. I dont remember seeing this before five or so years ago. I cant believe so many people seem to have no clue
    I learned this in fourth grade.


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