Avoiding Apostrophe Catastrophe–Repeat Performance

Hey, all, Suze here. I’m deep in the editing cave (working on both my own first book, which is due to my wonderful editor soon, and another project for someone else), so I thought I’d repeat my post on apostrophes from a while ago.

The apostrophe is the most misused punctuation mark out there. To me, incorrect use of the apostrophe and  spelling and homonym errors (I’ll discuss spelling and homonyms in a future post) are big hot pink neon signs that flash “inexperienced writer who hasn’t taken the time to polish.” Almost everybody can learn and implement these rules. And if for some reason you can’t or don’t want to (and of course there are valid reasons why this might be true), you need to find a friend or hire someone who can to go over your work before you put it out there into the world. We’re professionals, right? You wouldn’t go out of the house with uncombed hair or a big smear of powdered sugar on your tee shirt from the donut you just scarfed down, would you? Same with your writing. So here’s what I had to say about apostrophes:

Today’s topic is serious and, well, I hope you can handle it.  I’m talking about … punctuation.

Please don’t cringe in horror and run away screaming.  Many writers think of grammar and punctuation as something scary, mysterious, or incomprehensible.  I’m here, at the request of our Casey Wyatt, to let you know that it’s not.  You really don’t need to be able to define gerunds, or the subjunctive, or even the pluperfect, although those words are fun to say.  If you are already pretty good at this stuff, please stick around through to the end, because there might just be a reward!

Honestly, there are not that many grammar or punctuation rules a writer needs to follow.  This isn’t eighth grade, and no diagramming of sentences on a chalkboard in front of the whole class is required.  Most books have plenty of grammar “mistakes,” but guess what?  Good writing doesn’t have to be grammatically perfect.  It’s usually better when it isn’t, so it doesn’t sound stilted and formal.  Voice doesn’t really come through if your novel reads like a dissertation.

Let’s start with the apostrophe. You know this little guy. Here he is: ‘  (Waving madly.  Say hi!) This poor thing gets used and abused a lot. But he should really only be making an appearance in a few situations.

To take the place of letters removed in a contraction: don’t (do not), can’t (can not)  Or, if you’re writing Highland romance: Ye’ll be pressin’ that kilt, Connor McConnorhaughtlocheniantyre, before ye’ll be leavin’ my house.

To show possession:

  • If the noun showing possession is singular, use ‘s — Fiona’s snowy white arms.  Connor’s rippling abdominals.  This is true even if the singular noun ends in s — Hans’s luxurious blond hair.
  • If the noun showing possession is plural, place the apostrophe at the end — the Highland clans’ war.  The Joneses’ mailbox.

Special rules regarding the words its and it’s:

  • Use it’s ONLY in place of the words it is or it has — It’s been great knowing you Connor, but I must say good-bye.
  • Use its to show possession — The cave bear was fiercely protective of its lair.

Related to the above:

  • Never, ever, ever use an apostrophe if a pronoun is already possessive: its, hers, his, theirs, ours, yours, etc. (not it’s, her’s, his’s, their’s …)

And please:

  • Never, ever, ever use an apostrophe plus s to make a noun (person, place or thing) plural (more than one)–The cave bear’s ran after Connor (the cave bear’s what ran after Connor?). Correctly punctuated: The cave bears ran after Connor. (See the difference? The second sentence tells us that more than one bear is chasing Connor. Hope he got away!)

There are other rules, but these are the basics. If you have any questions, check out this site, which explains virtually every situation clearly: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp.  You can also contact me, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

Now, for those of you who stuck with me through the lecture, here’s your treat … a gratuitous hunk!  I can’t post a picture due to copyright rules, but here’s a link for you: click here to see my number 1 pick to play Connor McWhat’shisname in the movie version of my hypothetical highland romance.

Do you have any pesky punctuation questions you want answered today?  If not, tell me about one of your high school English teachers.

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3 thoughts on “Avoiding Apostrophe Catastrophe–Repeat Performance”

  1. When I was a little girl mommy told me to do a comma like this… say the sentence, where it feels like you will stop, put in a comma. Turns out, it usually works. Thanks for a great post Suze.

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