Despite the dry subject, I was having fun—until a couple of unneeded apostrophes caught my eye. Suddenly I was noticing that almost every word ending in –s had an apostrophe. Some needed the punctuation to show ownership: Our bank’s policy is to require first-time home buyers to make a down payment of 3.5 percent. But most needed only –s or -es to make them plural: Like most banks, we require a down payment.
The rule for forming plural nouns in English is simple: generally adding –s or -es is enough to show you need more than one. For some reason, many people think they need to complicate the rule by adding punctuation. Check out the produce aisle in your local grocery store. Odds are you’ll find Apple’s or Banana’s on sale. (That’s why the British call this particular error the grocer’s apostrophe.)
Did this mistake matter enough to tell my colleague about it? I didn’t want to embarrass her by calling in the grammar police for no reason. On the other hand, if she used the presentation again, she could find herself embarrassed for three reasons:
- Errors distort meaning. An apostrophe means one of two things: possession or a missing letter. My cat’s favorite toy means my one cat claims ownership of a plaything; my cats means I have more than one cat. It’s is a contracted form of It is; its is a pronoun like his or hers and needs no apostrophe.
- Noticeable errors are distracting. Once I noticed the apostrophe overkill, I was paying as much attention to the unneccessary apostrophes as I was to the content.
- Noticeable errors can make you look careless or stupid. Some errors matter more than others, as Maxine Hairston found.
My colleague was under the gun when she prepared her presentation, and she is generally neither careless nor stupid. I decided to email her a thank-you for her engaging presentation and mention that spell check had missed something. Fortunately she was grateful for the feedback.
If you’re now feeling insecure about apostrophes, Find and Replace can help you avoid overkill. First search for -‘s; then search again for -‘es. Each time you find an apostrophe, ask: Do I need this to show ownership or a missing letter? If the answer is no, delete the offending apostrophe and check the next one. If you’re not sure, use a good style guide to review the rules.
- Mignon Fogarty’s explanations are quick and clear: See “9 Ways to Use an Apostrophe.“
- Robin L. Simmons’ Grammar Bytes has an excellent summary of the rules for apostrophe usage plus some entertaining interactive exercises.
(Image by Sceptre)