DREAMS OF A SCRIBE: The Catastrophe of the Apostrophe

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I started teaching high school English 41 years ago in northern Ontario in a town called Chapleau, where I moved here in 1984, where I continued to reveal the wonders of the language English, Dickens and Shakespeare to incredible groups of pupils, most of whom were never too sure of the need to have the bard of Stratford-on-Avon in life.

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While English was the least popular subject for many students, for others it was a wonderful opportunity to explore the craft of superb writers and develop their own writing and performing skills.

My biggest pet peeve is the use of incorrect grammar in formal communication. I know we all use colloquial language (common language or slang) most of the time, especially when conversing in the realm of social media: BRB, OMG, LOL, etc.

The “level” of language we use on any given day can vary wildly, depending on the context: at work (in a factory, garage, school or church), the local bar, with your closest friends, while talking with a grandparent or a six-year-old child. We all have an inner monitor that tells us when certain words, phrases, and grammar are appropriate.

The problem arises for me when mistakes are made in more formal conversation and writing, which could create serious problems, especially in advertising your business, a resume or cover letter, a newspaper article or a letter or an e-mail to anyone. .

Today I’m going to focus on what I call the apostrophe disaster.

People often go wrong with apostrophes because they try too hard, dotting their writing, as if a quota of them needs to be filled.

Here are the basics: To show possession, in most cases where the subject (the main object of the sentence, like cat or penguin) is singular, you simply add ‘s. Examples – cat, child, Fred, government, (one of) twin cookies, Rodney, municipality.

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If the subject is already plural, then put the plural first and then add the ‘s. Examples are children, governments, (both) twins, municipalities. Do not add another s after an s.

The main confusion comes with possession using the word this. To show the possessive, you must always use his. No apostrophe is necessary. The kitten has lost its mittens, the cow has lost its energy. It sounds weird, even counter-intuitive, but it’s okay.

The second use of apostrophes is to contract, or join two words together, to simplify a sentence and its pronunciation. It has become it is, always! Does not become does not want; is not – is not; and they are – they are. If so, use it.

Ask yourself: What word do I want to use? Write it, singular or plural, then add the possessive part. With the contractions, think about it in your head. If you mean they are, then you can’t go wrong using what they are (rather than homonyms such as their or there, which sound the same – more on that another time.)

So as in the English classes of yesteryear, a few exercises for you:

Place all apostrophes in these sentences as indicated by the rules:

  • Gerald Ford’s fall down the steps of the plane earned him a reputation as a clown.
  • The Penguins coach ignored Crosby’s tendency to steal passes from teammates.
  • It’s going to rain today, and there’s going to be fog too, forcing the cancellation of buses and the closure of schools. Yes, they are closed now!
  • Please don’t let the dogs in or they’ll chase mud all over the Jeans carpets.

Sorry, but I won’t check everyone’s homework on this, but feel free to ask if you have any questions. Spelling and grammar checking will catch some, but never all errors in a document.

Go ahead and apostrophize well, my friends.