Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Perfecting Punctuation - How to Put the Apostrophe to Work

By Sandra Ferguson

The Apostrophe has been around for quite a bit-say since the 16th century. At that time, the little curlicue punctuation mark held the intent purpose of signifying 'omission.' Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and even Sir Thomas More plugged in ' (the apostrophe) whenever they chose to eliminate letters from words. William Shakespeare proved the apostrophe's worth in A Lover's Complaint, "Sometimes her levell'd eyes their carriage ride;... Sometime diverted their poor balls are tied To th' orbed earth;... anon their gazes lend To every place at once, and nowhere fix'd, The mind and sight distractedly commix'd." Shakespeare thoroughly demonstrated his ability to remove letters and provide a virtual garden for the growth of the apostrophe.

Through the centuries, as writers' and publishers' affection of this tiny form of punctuation grew, so did its many uses. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, dedicates a total of twenty entries on how best to employ the apostrophe. British Bestseller, Lynne Truss, demonstrates a further and superlative understanding of the apostrophe in her work Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which notes eight different uses for this punctuation.

Today, most English punctuation is used for convenience's sake. Sometimes, correctly, more often than not the punctuation usage is flawed. By exploring a few of the basics regarding the apostrophe's purpose, a writer can enhance clarity and strive for perfect punctuation.

Beginning with the most obvious and original use of the apostrophe: utilization of this mark for the omission or removal of letters. Common contractions could not exist without the apostrophe. A singular letter can be replaced by the punctuation, but at times, a solitary apostrophe counts for more than one letter. Some of the more popular contractions are: Don't (do not), Can't (can not), I've (I have), He's (he is), Won't (will not), Couldn't, Shouldn't, Wouldn't (could not, should not, would not), and then the proverbially misunderstood it's (it is). This final contraction is often mistaken for the English possessive cousin of... that's right-"its".

For a moment, review it's versus its. One perfect punctuation rule can be applied when considering how to apostrophe or how not to apostrophe in regards to "it." "It's" purpose is simple-the contraction for IT IS or IT HAS. An example, "IT IS a long way to the park" utilizes the pronoun IT and the verb IS. Now, apply the contraction and the sentence becomes, "IT'S a long way to the park". When IT is joined with IS or HAS, then a contraction of "IT'S" can be interchanged. For each and every other time that an "ITS" is required, do not use an apostrophe-for any reason. Just to be clear... there is no such word as ITS'. It simply does not exist and a writer's eye should recognize the atrocity and strike it from writing.

The second most common use for the apostrophe is to show possession-who or what owns something or other. Possession may seem clear cut until the apostrophe enters the scene. Many a writer has been dropped in their tracks by this little grammatical mark. Breaking down the differences between singular noun and plural noun possession can make the apostrophe's use easier to understand. Examples of a singular noun possession could be: Joe's house (the house of Joe), Mildred's restaurant (the restaurant of Mildred), or Sally's kids (yes, those noisy ankle-biters belong to Sally). The use of the apostrophe seems straight forward when dealing with a single owner. Add the apostrophe and an "S" and the singular possession is complete. What happens, however, when that same singular noun, which holds possession, ends in the letter "S"? When Jess owns the house, where does the curly mark go and is another "S" added or not? "Jess's house" is the proper punctuation for this sentence. Tuck the apostrophe behind the last letter of the noun, and then add an "S" to complete the formation for possession.

This leads to the last category for possession: handling of plural nouns. When dealing with plural nouns, which hold possession, such as, "Children, Men, Women", where does the apostrophe land? Utilize the same rule of adding an apostrophe behind the last letter of the noun, then add an "S" and consider it a job well done. The result will be: children's books, men's ties, women's shelter. For one final twist on plural possession, consider any plural noun that ends in a "S", and there are plenty for consideration, such as, Senior Students Dance, Dogs Play Area, Members Lodge, Legislators Study Group. Not to confuse the issue or leave anyone out, ask one clarifying question: Is it one student or many students attending the dance? One dog or many dogs allowed to play? One member or many allowed in the lodge? And finally, one can hope that all legislators would find time to study. If the answer is more than one of anything showing possession, and that plural noun ends in "S", then slap the apostrophe behind the last "S" and stop. The resulting punctuation becomes: "Senior Students' Dance", "Dogs' Play Area", "Members' Lodge" and "Legislators' Study Group."

For writers who are actively engaged in perfecting the written word, consider the importance of the apostrophe and its correct usage. A simple Google request on the curly mark and over three million hits return. For such a tiny punctuation mark, the world clambers for an easy and accurate way to put the apostrophe to work. Consider two of the apostrophe's basic uses in omission and possession and any writer is well on the way to perfecting punctuation.

Sandra Ferguson - Author of HARM'S WAY, a Wild Rose Press romantic suspense release. Catch up on all my latest news at: http://www.lone-star-meanderings.blogspot.com

MY NEW WEBSITE is up. Stop by for a visit at: http://www.slferguson.net

Freelance writer and published author of Harm's Way provides writing and grammar tips, along with Texas trivia, history and must-see landmarks, where to go and what to do when visiting the Lone Star state, and general sanity tips for parents of teens.

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