From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The ninth of a ten-part series.
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
More from the Ripping Out One’s Hair Department: The oft-abused, disrespected apostrophe.
I implore you: Please, do NOT use a single quotation mark in place of an apostrophe. It is NOT the same thing. And, please, do NOT insert an apostrophe in a plural noun; the apostrophe in that context means possession or ownership, not plurality.
Here’s the deal: Punctuation marks are to readers as road signs are to drivers. The yield sign and stop sign mean very different things. (Yes, I’m well aware that these days most drivers seem to treat stop signs as yield signs—or for target practice—but that’s another matter.)
An apostrophe serves two functions: It can indicate that characters in a word have been left out, or it can indicate possession or ownership.
Characters Left Out
This error occurs typically when the apostrophe is at the beginning of a truncated word:
incorrect: I told ‘em to get lost.
correct: I told ’em to get lost.
incorrect: ‘Cause I said so!
correct: ’Cause I said so!
incorrect: ‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .
correct: ’Twas the night before Christmas . . .
incorrect: ‘Til death do us part!
correct: ’Til death do us part!
incorrect: ‘Till death do us part.
correct: Till death do us part.
Note: ’til is the contracted form of until; till—no apostrophe—is now accepted, and preferred, as standard practice.
Common complaint: But my word processor did that!
Yes, it did. I blame this on Bill Gates and the oxymoronic “smart quotes” in Microsoft Word. The geniuses at Microsoft apparently do not know the difference, or they cannot devise a way to fix it. Either way, it sucks.
Why, you may ask, can’t I just use “dumb quotes” that are straight up and down— ' " —instead of “curly quotes”?
Answer: Because it’s unprofessional and considered temporary, for use at the working draft stage, but not for the final draft to be submitted for publication. If you want to be viewed as a professional, you play the game by the rules.
Clarity, not confusion.
Three methods of creating a “curly” apostrophe when it is preceded by a space:
- Insert the character at the end of the preceding word or sentence, then insert the space that goes in front of it. Yes, that requires extra work. Boo hoo. Here’s a Kleenex.
- Copy and paste it from another word.
- Leave it as-is for the time being, then do a global search and replace before showing it to anyone or publishing the manuscript.
This series is aimed at those who are self-publishing books. If you are submitting work to publishers, whether it’s book length, a short story, an essay, or a news article, you need to follow their guidelines, especially those publishing online. They may prefer “dumb quotes.”
Plural vs. Possessive
Q: Why does “ANTIQUE’S” deserve an apostrophe and “COLLECTIBLES” does not?
A: It doesn’t.
When we write a noun as a plural to indicate a quantity greater than one, we add an “s”: antiques, collectibles, apples, oranges, bananas, sodas, CDs, DVDs; when the word ends in “s” we add “es”: buses, businesses, Edwardses. No apostrophe is used, although we make exceptions in certain cases, such as with a single letter: Oakland A’s (so it doesn’t appear to be “as”).
When we indicate possession or ownership—to show that something belongs to a person or object—we add an apostrophe and an “s”: Those are Larry’s apples. The apple’s color is red.
If the noun is plural, the apostrophe follows the “s”: Ladies’ Night.
Dispute: Some style manuals (typically newspapers) say not to add the “s” if a word ends with “s” or an “es” sound: Those are Janis’ apples. (Newspapers do that to save space.)
I find this off-putting. The Chicago Manual of Style and other manuals agree with me, saying that if the “s” is pronounced when speaking, then it should be included when written: Those are Janis’s apples. (As a writer, you should use the style appropriate to the publication and its style guidelines; whichever style you choose, be consistent.)
Exceptions: You knew this was coming, correct? Always those damned exceptions (yes, damned, not damn, if you want to use proper grammar). Pronouns do not use apostrophes to indicate possession: his, hers, yours, theirs, its. (Again, I don’t make the rules; I’m just the messenger trying to help you look like a pro—and avoid the embarrassment of snarky comments from readers.)
It’s vs. Its
incorrect: Its my turn to drive.
correct: It’s my turn to drive. (contraction of it is)
incorrect: The car broke it’s axle.
correct: The car broke its axle. (possessive)
Self-editing tip: When you believe your manuscript is perfect (odds are it’s not), search for all incidences of its and it’s, and triple-check that you have styled them correctly.
- Good (and fun) reference: Comma Sense by Richard Lederer.
- When to Use It’s vs. Its
- Sing along with the Apostrophe song
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash—The Separator
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, and Contusion
Still to come:
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves