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Jots and Tittles: The catastrophic apostrophe.

Sometimes, you have to feel sorry for the poor little apostrophe. It has a small list of tasks to perform — small, but vitally important. Not surprisingly, it sometimes needs a bit of a rest, but is then rudely awaken and shoved into a sentence it has no business being in, where it puts asunder that which English grammar has joined.

Here’s an example:

The dog was so pleased, it wagged it’s tail and demolished a small vase.

Ouch! That hurts. There are two casualties here: the vase and the grammar.

The sentence is wrong, because it’s is a contraction of one of two things: either it is or it has. Now, which of the following two sentences makes most sense?

  • It wagged it is tail.
  • It wagged it has tail.

“Stop!” I hear you cry. “Doesn’t the apostrophe followed by S have another function as well? Doesn’t it indicate possession? Don’t we say, The dog’s tail?”

Well, yes we do, but there is a very, very important thing to notice here — a subtle but significant difference. Dog is a noun, but it is a pronoun — a special word that takes the place of a real noun. The rules for pronouns are not quite the same as the rules for nouns.

We all know what nouns are: they are things, objects, sometimes people or even places. Some examples of nouns are:

  • driving instructor
  • polecat
  • table

Nouns which are also names are known as proper nouns; for example:

  • George W. Bush
  • South Africa
  • Sydney

To all of these, we can add ’s to indicate possession:

  • The driving instructor’s nerves
  • The polecat’s feet
  • The table’s tendency to stay in one place
  • George W. Bush’s speeches
  • South Africa’s economy
  • Sydney’s famous opera house

Pronouns are different. Pronouns are words like we and they. There are many different kinds of pronoun, but let’s concentrate on subjective and possessive pronouns.

Subjective pronouns are used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence. We can divide them into singular pronouns (pronouns referring to one person or thing) and plural pronouns (which refer to more than one person or thing). There are also first-person pronouns, second-person pronouns and third-person pronouns. Here they all are:

Singular Plural
First I we
Second you you
Third he, she, it they

Possessive pronouns show possession. What, for example, is the first person singular possessive pronoun? It’s my. And the second person singular pronoun is your. For example:

Get your hands off my new car!

Wow! Two possessive pronouns in one sentence… and not a single apostrophe in sight. Which is important: we don’t say your’s hands, and neither do we say my’s car.

And that’s the clue: we’re no longer dealing with nouns that have a possessive ’s added, we’re dealing with a different class of words altogether. These are possessive pronouns.

And here are the possessive pronouns all in one table:

Singular Plural
First my our
Second your your
Third his, her, its their

Notice the third person singular possessive pronouns: not he’s, she’s and it’s; but his, her and its.

There is one apparent exception to this rule, and that involves the pronoun one. Its possessive equivalent is actually one’s, with an apostrophe (as in the sentence One must be civil to one’s guests), but then it’s not really a pronoun at all. Not that this should worry you too much; it’s a very rarely-used word and you should avoid it, unless you don’t mind sounding like the Queen of England.

The short version of this very long discussion is this: Whenever you are not sure whether to write its or it’s, try replacing it with it is or it has. If it still makes sense, use the apostrophe; if not, give the poor thing a rest.

  • The dog wagged its tail. (Can we say it is tail or it has tail? No? Then we don’t need an apostrophe.)
  • It’s cold outside. (We can’t say it has cold, but we can say it is cold and the sentence still makes sense — so here we need an apostrophe.)

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