Magazine article The Quill

Find the Right Home for Apostrophes

Magazine article The Quill

Find the Right Home for Apostrophes

Article excerpt

The success of Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" - a book on punctuation - is doubtless due in part to the amusing gag that gives the book its title:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda" he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

The book's popularity also shows that readers care about wayward punctuation. Take the much-abused apostrophe. That elegant little squiggle has only a few functions, yet it sometimes litters a patch of writing like shavings on a magnet.

As punctuation goes, the apostrophe is simple:

1) It marks the omitted letter or letters in a contraction. It's for it is. Cant for cannot. They're for they are. I could've danced all night. (Could've means could have, not could "of." And it's can mean both it is - it's midnight - and it has - it's been a long time).

2) The apostrophe marks possession: John's desk. The desk's drawer. A whole year's work. Notice we could also say the desk of John, the drawer of the desk, the work of a whole year - "of" structures that show possession.

With a single owner, add an apostrophe and then "s": John Smith's desk, John Williams s pen. (The Associated Press Stylebook, however, departs from that treatment of singular proper nouns, omitting the "s" after singular proper nouns ending in "s": John Williams pen. I followed AP style above when I wrote of Lynne Truss book.)

With multiple owners, first make the proper noun plural by adding "s" (or "es" to names that already end in "s") and then an apostrophe: the Bennetts' house, the Smiths' house, the Williamses house, the Joneses' house. Plural generic nouns ending in "s" need only an apostrophe: the vampires' fear of garlic, the ducks' quacking chorus.

Show joint ownership by apostrophizing the final noun: John and Mary's car. Separate possession needs separate apostrophes: John's and Mary's cars.

When the plural form of a word is spelled differently from the singular form, add apostrophe and "s" in both cases: mans/men's, woman's/women's, child's/children's.

3) The apostrophe marks the plural of letters, numerals, or symbols: he was holding three 6's and a pair of4's. She earned two A's and three B's. Mind your P's and Q's. Current stylebooks usually omit apostrophes when there is more than one letter or numeral: They freed three POWs. he knows his ABCs. The airline bought a dozen new 727s. …

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