WASHINGTON, May 15, 2016 – As a longtime writer and editor, I see horrendous spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage all the time. Among the most common problems in this area is the use—or misuse—of punctuation as it pertains to possessives, contractions and direct quotations.
Apostrophes and it’s vs. its
Years ago when I taught freshman comp at the University of South Carolina, one of the most pernicious punctuation and usage problems I encountered in student writing was the utterly invincible confusion of the use of “its” and it’s.”
Nearly all incoming students would hand in papers containing at least one flavor of the following sentence: “The dog chased it’s tail.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. I-t-apostrophe-s is the contraction for “it is.” Example: “It’s raining outside.” Meaning: “It is raining outside.”
The possessive form of the word is spelled without an apostrophe. In our earlier example about the dog, the correct usage would be “The dog chased its tail.” Period. No negotiation on this. Back in the day, I noted that the confusion surrounding both forms of “its” was a primarily southern U.S. phenomenon. Today, however, it’s (contraction for “it has”) become a nationwide epidemic.
In a way, the confused usage here is due at least in part to the inconsistencies that abound in the English language. Apostrophes are, in fact, commonly used to denote the possessive form of nouns. As in “the dog’s tail,” or “the wombat’s enemy.” I-T-S, however, is a different creature, and you just have to pound this one into your head until you just know it:
“I-T-S = possessive; I-T-apostrophe-S = contraction for ‘it is’” or “it has.”
Errors like this make a writer look bad and perhaps less credible, at least to more sophisticated readers. For that reason alone, writers should be paying more attention to the difference.
Apostrophes and decades
Before getting back to possessives and the apostrophe, let’s take a quick look at the vexingly irregular way people use—or don’t use—apostrophes when referencing numerical decades.
The current absolutely right way to do this: “Students protested throughout the ‘60s.” We will often see “Students protested throughout the 60’s” but that’s incorrect.
Confusing the matter slightly, we can use these decade markers as possessives, as in this example from the online grammar site of the Chicago Manual of Style, a frequently used style guide in academia: “The ‘70s’ finest director was Martin Scorsese…” Note the initial apostrophe plus what amounts to my preferred usage of the apostrophe in a possessive ending in “s.”
Apostrophes and possessives
Aside from the “its” twins, possessives in most cases are created by adding an “apostrophe-s” to the noun that’s being used as a possessive. Examples: “Martin’s ball,” “Safeway’s dairy section,” “a politician’s most recent lie.”
But problems arise when the possessive noun in question end with an “s.” Is it “the Jones’s front yard,” or “the Jones’ front yard.” Most current grammar books and web sites will tell you that the former usage (“Jones’s”) is the correct one, and indeed that’s the one we usually see. However, the latter usage (“Jones’”) has become at least as frequent, and in fact it’s the one I prefer to use. Travel at your own risk on this one, particularly given that there are special cases like “children’s’” (in the plural possessive).
Also, note at this point that we’re enclosing our excerpted examples here with open and closed quote marks, which is still the generally accepted way to do this. Hope that’s not confusing the issue.
As is so often the case in British English and American English—the two currently dominant forms of the language whether post-colonialists like it or not—variations and exceptions will occasionally pop up. But if you generally adhere to the above guidelines, perceptive readers will, albeit subtly, sense that you’re literate, educated and more “in the know” than writers who make apostrophe errors on a regular basis.
Given today’s lack of copy editors (journalistic enterprises no longer want to pay them), we’ve seen a general decline in proper usage over the last decade or two, even in a once grammatically flawless paper like the Wall Street Journal. Once meticulously proofread, the Journal is losing its (possessive) grammatical superiority in the media universe, as numerous errors, including incorrect possessives, often remain horribly wrong and uncorrected. That’s the case with numerous other publications as well.
Nevertheless, we thought we’d take a stand here before we return to something like Shakespearean English, where words and punctuation were largely a matter of personal choice. That actually sounds pretty egalitarian. But when you get to writing and usage in legal or political matters, some manner of generally accepted grammar and punctuation could literally be a matter of life and death.
Our own writerly products are, perhaps, less crucial. But doing things right—or as right as modern tradition permits—makes it far more certain that the meaning of what we write is widely understood.
Next time: Single quotes, double quotes and scare quotes