For reasons that are probably not all that relevant and might be inexplicable, I have long been fascinated with the widespread misuse of apostrophes.
My obsession with the misunderstood little punctuation marks even earned me the nickname, “the apostrophe police,” during a lengthy stint at a job in the Seattle area in the 1990s. I can’t really explain my excessive interest with the matter; it’s – as they say – just one of those things.
But here’s the deal: I don’t get where the confusion comes from. In my estimation, understanding how to use apostrophes is pretty clear cut: They’re utilized near the end of a word to denote possession, or somewhere within a word to represent the combination of two words, which is known as a contraction. A concept equally easy to comprehend is that apostrophes are not used before the “s” at the end of words denoting plurality.
For example, if there is more than one dog, there are “dogs” (no apostrophe). If something belongs to a dog, that thing is the “dog’s” possession. If there are not any dogs, there “aren’t” any dogs (with the apostrophe replacing the “o” in “are not”).
Sure, things get a little more interesting if a word ends with “s” and needs to be used in a possessive fashion. But only a little more; the apostrophe just goes after the “s,” like if the dog belongs to James, the dog is James’ dog.
Now, I realize the right or wrong application of apostrophes isn’t really an “Earth-shattering” issue. Obviously, it’s not going to affect the economy, make Russia stronger or cause more hurricanes to make landfall on U.S. soil.
But it’s still weird. And examples are everywhere.
I got one in my email just the other day from an organization seeking “host’s” and “speakers.” Two plural words were separated by only one other word, but one of them was stamped with an apostrophe and other wasn’t.
Someone said to me that maybe that was a way of assuring the writer was at least half right.
I was like, “hmm, that kind of makes sense in a nonsensical way.”
Not long ago, I saw an official-looking flyer from a government agency that said something like, “no cameras are allowed, but representative’s will be on hand to offer assistance.” Again, two plural words in close proximity, one unnecessary apostrophe.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice all kinds of signs, ads, posters and other printed material where one plural word has no apostrophe and another does. But what you won’t notice is a pattern; in observing the phenomenon, I’ve determined that apostrophe usage (or lack thereof) can generally be pretty random.
And, of course, the English language itself has to make the whole thing far more complicated, and provide a stark contrast to what I earlier described as a fairly easy set of rules governing apostrophes. Yep, a common word exists where you would think an apostrophe should be included, but isn’t: The possessive version of “its” (meaning something belongs to “it”). I can’t think of any other possessive word that doesn’t have an apostrophe, but I guess since the “it is” contraction (“it’s”) requires one, the possessive version doesn’t get one so the two words can remain separate.
Leave it to the English language to throw a nasty curve ball now and then.
Still, if you just remember that an apostrophe never goes before the “s” at the end of a plural word, then you’re well on your way to achieving apostrophic excellence. Then, put one in every possessive word other than its, and use them in the right spot in a contraction, and presto, you’ve earned your apostrophe police badge.
I’ll see you at the precinct headquarters.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.