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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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teh apostrophey 2

This week I’m returning to the apostrophe. I have to admit that I made a massive mistake last time—I didn’t do my research. So in order to correct my mistake and redeem myself in the eyes of whoever might have spotted it (are you out there?), and also for my own practice, I’m going to teach you some more about that damned apostrophe.

I said in issue two that the contraction it’s ALWAYS means it is. Well, I was wrong—a very big oversight on my part. Most of the time it’s is short for it is, however it can also be a contraction of it has. It’s been a long time—it has been a long time. I should also mention that this also applies to she’s and he’s. This is usually found in sentences formed in the perfect tense—formed by conjugating the verb ‘to have’, then adding the active verb’s past participle:

He’s gone to uni to p0wn some nubs. (Where ‘gone’ is the past participle.)

The perfect tense is used to indicate something that has happened in the past. Another way to talk about things in the past is with the imperfect tense, which instead just uses the preterite of the active verb (He went to uni to p0wn some nubs – stuff that happened). But I digress. I might possibly explain more about the various tenses some other time. Maybe.

Back to the apostrophe—I’m now going to explain some more common mistakes that people make when it comes to using it. One such mistake is the their/there/they’re and your/you’re mixups. They all sound pretty much the same, so how are we supposed to distinguish between them when writing?

They’re blowing their shit up over there.

They (a bunch of people, animals, robots, etc) are blowing their shit (the shit belonging to the bunch of people, animals, robots, etc) up over there (you’d probably point somewhere).

To help clarify which word you should use, it may be helpful to ask: Who (are)? Whose? Where?

I’ve made a table to demonstrate:

table-1

Another tricky thing that the apostrophe does is appearing in constructions involving time and money, such as five months’ rent or a week’s time. (Note the placement of the apostrophe after plural and non-plural words!) Unfortunately, like most rules concerning English grammar, there are exceptions. For example, I slept with your mother three months ago. She is now three months pregnant. Note that in this case there is no apostrophe. The difference between these examples, and whether you use an apostrophe or not, can be seen if we rearrange the sentences to use of instead of an apostrophe, like this:

Five months of rent.

A week of time.

However, we would not say three months of pregnant. The way I see this is that the word pregnant is a state of being—three months of being pregnant. (Your mother would talk about herself in this way using I am: I am three months pregnant.) Therefore we do not use an apostrophe.

One other common mistake people make is using apostrophes when forming the plural of a noun. Most commonly, people form plurals with an apostrophe when the word ends in a vowel or is an acronym. This is wrong—a plural word by itself should never have an apostrophe—you only add the apostrophe when it possesses something (See teh grammerz in Salient issue two for more details). Here is another table to demonstrate:

table-2

Questions about grammar? Email me at mikey@salient.org.nz.

Approved Reading
Bob’s Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots.
A book of some description.

Disapproved Reading
A report into the effects of Voluntary Student Unionism In Australia by Joel Cosgrove.

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About the Author ()

Mikey learned everything he knows about English Grammar in an MSN chat room when he was 13. Believing that people don't say "LOL" enough in everyday conversation, he has made it his mission to teach the world about grammerz one person at a time.

Comments (1)

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  1. Linguistics student says:

    The apostrophe occurs in contexts like “the zombie’s insatiable craving for human brains” because at one point there was an extra letter or letters in between “zombie” and “s”. This was an inflected ending showing the genitive case – that’s the case that shows posession. Over time those letters dropped out, as shown by the presence of the apostrophe. Its, as in “its putrifying reanimated corpse lurched out of the shadows” does not have an apostrophe because it is the original form of the genitive for this word. No letters have dropped out of this word, hence it needs no apostrophe.

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