For today's lesson, we're going to take last week's errant commas and let them float joyously upwards where they become — when used singly — apostrophes. Because flagrant misuse of apostrophes is yet another unfortunate reality in today's world.
I admit, however, that flagrant misuse of apostrophes does lead to some good jokes. On one of my many cross-country drives, stopping at the compendium of unimaginable wonders that is any Flying J truck stop, I found and purchased a beautiful gold cloisonne pin emblazoned with a small red flower and the words, "I'm a truckers' wife." I wore it proudly on my jean jacket for years before finally, one sad day, it disappeared. It tickled me endlessly to use my lapel to announce to the world that I was the wife of MORE THAN ONE trucker. Yep, Henry, Sammy, and Larry sure kept me busy when they were all home from open road at the same time.
But it's time to get back to our very serious business: saving the world from common apostrophe mishaps. Below is another non-exhaustive list designed to help you put apostrophes in their place.
- Let's vs. lets:
- INCORRECT: "Lets go to the movies. Lets go see the stars."
- CORRECT: "Let's go to the movies. Let's go see the stars."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: "Lets" means "to allow or permit": e.g., "Punjab totally lets me swim unattended in Daddy Warbucks' pool." "Let's," on the other hand, is a combination of "let" and "us." And — in the English language — any time you drop a letter (or letters) to create a contraction, you insert an apostrophe to show where the letters have been removed. Sorry, technical term alert. But — for a change — it's a rather good one, in that helpfully alerts you to its purpose: because when you create a contraction, you're indeed taking a set of words and contracting them, or making them smaller. More contractions less typically effed up: Haven't = have not. Won't = will not. I'll = I will. When's = when is. O'clock = of the clock. Contractions that are fun in an adorable, old-fashioned way: Ne'er-do-well = never-do-well. 'Twas = it was. O' = of. Ma'am = madam. (Next time someone calls me ma'am, I think I'll say, "Excuse me, but that's 'Madam' to you." I will then enjoy their blank stare immensely.)
- It's vs. its:
- INCORRECT: "Its clear that Miss Hannigan is a secret heroine. Its her self-esteem issues — partnered with her bathtub gin — that keep us from realizing it till the end of the movie."
- CORRECT: "It's clear that Miss Hannigan is a secret heroine. It's her self-esteem issues — partnered with her bathtub gin — that keep us from realizing it till the end of the movie."
- INCORRECT: "The movie Annie is a true classic. It's plucky, red-headed heroine finds modern-day incarnation in everyone from Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen to Daisy Ridley's Rey."
- CORRECT: "The movie Annie is a true classic. Its plucky, red-headed heroine finds modern-day incarnation in everyone from Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen to Daisy Ridley's Rey."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: Once and for all, please repeat after me. "It's" is a contraction of "it is." "Its" is the possessive form of "it." With "its," whatever "it" refers to, it owns something (e.g., in this case, the movie Annie owns its plucky heroine). Get it straight already, because it's embarrassing if its misuse becomes a habit. To help you remember this one, think again of how contractions work. Since you're dropping the "i" in "is," you put an apostrophe back in its place to show that a letter has been dropped. But — I know, I know — what about the "rule" that says to make something possessive, you add an apostrophe-S? A rule that clearly doesn't apply here? Well, you'll never catch me claiming that the English language *always* makes sense.
- Making last names plural:
- INCORRECT: "The Warbuck's invite you to a private screening of The Hunger Games, Annie's new favorite movie. The Roosevelt's will also be in attendance."
- CORRECT: "The Warbucks invite you to a private screening of The Hunger Games, Annie's new favorite movie. The Roosevelts will also be in attendance."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: If somebody's last name already ends in an S, there's no reason to shove an apostrophe into it to show that you're referring to several members of the same family. The last name is Warbucks; to refer to more than one member of the Warbucks family, it stays Warbucks. The last name Roosevelt, on the other hand, DOES require you to add an S to pluralize it. But again, don't rudely insert an apostrophe. The Roosevelts are not intended to "own" anything in this sentence. In our incorrect example, did we mean to refer to talk about "Roosevelt's will" (as in, the legal document expressing his wishes when he dies)? No, we did not.
- Incorrectly pluralizing basically anything:
- INCORRECT: "The sign said that they had dog's for sale. If I hadn't adopted that dirty ragamuffin Sandy, I'd be all over those dog's."
- CORRECT: "The sign said that they had dogs for sale. If I hadn't adopted that dirty ragamuffin Sandy, I'd be all over those dogs."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: Generally speaking, adding an apostrophe-S to any noun makes it possessive. That is not the goal here, as the sign simply wants to convey the fact of having multiple dogs for sale. In addition, in the incorrect example, we seem to be referring to the dogs having things for sale. Industrious dogs, eh? This manner of apostrophe error is, sadly, nearly everywhere. Drive a mile down any city street in any English-speaking country. Within that mile, you're likely to see at least one (if not several) examples of the utterly unnecessary apostrophe-S combo used to pluralize something. This particular madness may never end, and as a result, some are even mad enough to take matters into their own hands. Here's your opportunity to follow a "punctuation vigilante" on his nightly rounds ridding the signage of Bristol, England, of errant apostrophes. A quote from our caped apostrophe crusader: "It's more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place."
- Referring to decades of time or decades within ages:
- INCORRECT: "Back in the 30's, Daddy Warbucks must have been in his 50's. What a wonderful man to have adopted a little girl so late in life."
- CORRECT: "Back in the '30s, Daddy Warbucks must have been in his 50s. What a wonderful man to have adopted a little girl so late in life."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: When referring to decades in short-hand (i.e., saying "the '30s" rather than "the 1930s"), you're dropping the 19. So — just like when you've dropped letters in contractions — you use an apostrophe to show where something's been left out. But the 30 does not possess anything; it's simply plural. So no apostrophe is needed before the S. Similarly, there's no need to include an apostrophe when referring to someone in their 50s. No digits are missing here, and the 50 is not called upon to own anything in this sentence.
- Pluralizing acronyms:
- INCORRECT: "If Annie were alive today, Daddy Warbucks would clearly help her set up a sizable collection of IRA's, 401K's, and maybe even REIT's (to house all her orphan friends)."
- CORRECT: "If Annie were alive today, Daddy Warbucks would clearly help her set up a sizable collection of IRAs, 401Ks, and maybe even REITs (to house all her orphan friends)."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: Again, these acronyms don't own anything. They are simply plurals. In addition, no letters have been dropped. No apostrophes are needed here. Move along, apostrophes.
- Singular vs. plural possessive nouns:
- INCORRECT: "I'm a truckers' wife."
- CORRECT: "I'm a trucker's wife."
- NON-TECHNICAL EXPLANATION: Coming full circle to our original, non-Annie-themed example, we have to ask ourselves the all-important question: was this wife involved in a polygamous union with more than one trucker husband? If she was, then the pin was worded correctly, because if a noun already ends in S, you add the possessive apostrophe AFTER the S. If she wasn't — as was most likely the case in the middle of conservative rural Nebraska, where the majestic pin was purchased — then the apostrophe needs to go before the S, so that she's safely the wife of only one trucker.
Thank you for your time and attention today. It's been fun to show you the immeasurable joys of finally knowing where those apostrophes do and don't belong. Before I go, however, I'd like to give a shout out to Henry, Sammy, and Larry. We sure had fun while it lasted, didn't we?
For more apostrophe fun, here you go: a (refreshingly SFW) website dedicated to sharing and bemoaning apostrophe errors.