As promised, my blogs will now be published every other Tuesday instead of every other Thursday. I want you to read my posts toward the beginning of the week, not toward the end!
In last Thursday’s blog, I spoke about failing to take advantage of my jet lag to write a post. But this time I succeeded: it’s 4:00 a.m. and I’m wide awake and typing away. I skipped the coffee, the Kindle, and the email (read my previous post if you don’t understand what I just said). I am living proof that people can change as long as the candle is still burning.
I also spoke about my new personal challenge, which is to organize my time more effectively. I am happy to report that I succeeded in creating a livable, weekly schedule, thanks to blogger John Meese’s friendly opt-in prize, “Daily Life Navigation,” which you can get if you sign up for his blog, here.
The biggest takeaway from building a schedule was that I have a lot more discretionary time than I thought. That was a liberating discovery, as I’ve been resisting creating a schedule for fear of being a slave to all my obligations. (John talks about how a schedule can be liberating instead of choking.)
If you’d like to see my schedule, I’ve put it on my Writer’s Clinic page. Let me know what you think, and send me any suggestions to make it (and me) more efficient. It’s most definitely a work-in-progress.
Now let’s move on to my latest “Comedy Grammar” post:
I have been rarin’ to write a post on the use of the apostrophe, that cute little eyelash of a character whose rights are violated more often than those of almost any other grammatical device. Think “its” versus “it’s” or Fisher Price Pack ‘n’ Play (can you tell I’m about to become a grandmother?).
Taking my cue from Olivia Newton John, who said, “Let me hear your body talk,” I have chosen to focus on the apostrophe catastrophe that turns my stomach the most: messing up the plurals.
Why people tend to go apostrophe-crazy with plurals is one of the mysteries of life. A plural is just an s. I ask you: Why complicate matters? Use apostrophes sparingly, and take only as needed.
Quick tip: Talking about more than one entity does not require an apostrophe-s. Use it only when speaking about what belongs to and entity.
The Parking Ticket of Apostrophe Violations, i.e., the Big Easy
Here are some warm-up examples on the use of the plural vs. apostrophe-s. Plurals are in italics and possessives are underlined. Notice whether they are followed by a verb, a noun, or nothing:
- The Steins are a very nice family who live up the road.
- Here we’re talking about a few people named Stein.
- There is a verb after the plural.
- The Steins’ car is new, but its brakes are not.
- In this example, a car is the possession of the Steins, and therefore we need possessive case.
- Notice that a noun follows the apostrophe-s.
- I buy tires from Mr. Stein’s auto parts store.
- The possessive is followed by an adjective (“auto parts”), which describes the noun (“store”) that follows it.
- Mr. Stein owns (possesses) the store, which sells auto parts. Therefore, only he gets the apostrophe-s, not the auto parts as well.
- If I would have put an apostrophe-s after “auto parts,” that would have meant that the store was owned by the auto parts of Mr. Stein, not by Mr. Stein himself. Scary.
- Mr. Green Jeans’ jeans are shorter than Jean’s jeans.
- With regard to our friend Mr. Green Jeans, The Chicago Manual of Style, which is your writer’s bible, now recommends that any singular noun that ends in s should be given another s after the apostrophe (“Green Jeans’s”). Notice that I did not do this. I’ll explain below.
- The name Jean does not end in an s, so it gets a regular apostrophe-s.
- Nouns follow the possessives.
By now you have figured out that in general, verbs follow the plurals and nouns follow the possessives. Makes sense, no? A noun, which is what these plurals are, needs an action (a verb), and a possessive needs to possess something, i.e., a noun (which can then be followed by a verb, i.e., “The Steins’ car drove away”).
I’ve upped the complexity here. See how you fare with these:
- My grandparents sent their greetings to the Steins’ son’s wife.
- My grandparents are just grandparents and don’t possess anything in this sentence.
- The Steins are plural (and therefore the apostrophe follows the s) and also possess something, i.e., a son.
- The singular son (apostrophe-s) is possessive of his wife. (Hope she’s in therapy.)
- My grandparents sent their greetings to the Steins.
- My non-possessive, plural grandparents sent greetings to the plural Steins.
- They did not send greetings to something that the Steins possessed. Therefore, the Steins get no apostrophe.
- My grandparents’ greetings were sent to Mr. Stein’s sons.
- Something that my grandparents possess was sent to something the singular Mr. Stein possesses.
- My grandparents sent their greetings to the Steins in an email.
- A prepositional phrase, i.e., the preposition “in” plus “an email,” follows the noun. You will need this information in the next section.
Hit and Runs
Here, whether to use an apostrophe or not depends on context.
- I’m going over to the Steins’ to deliver my grandmother’s greetings.
- I’m going over to the Steins to introduce myself.
The best way to figure out whether you need an apostrophe in cases like these is to temporarily add a modifier after the offending plural:
- I’m going over to the Steins’ house (noun) to deliver my grandmother’s greetings.
- I’m going over to the Steins at the conference (prepositional phrase) to introduce myself.
Which leads us to the following conclusions:
- If a noun follows the modifier, whether it’s a temporary one or not, you need possessive case.
- If a prepositional phrase follows the modifier, you need the simple plural.
- The word “to” in “to deliver” is not a preposition here; it’s part of the infinitive verb.
DUI: The Great Extra S Debate
As promised, I will explain why I advocate the use of just an apostrophe after a singular noun ending in s, such as Mr. Green Jeans, business, and even a word like marquis, whose s is silent.
Simply put, it looks better. Yes, thirty years in the editing business and I’m advocating aesthetics (another word that needs only an apostrophe, I might add). Would you rather read “Mr. Green Jeans’s,” “business’s” (how many esses do you need?), or “marquis’s”? I know I wouldn’t.
Luckily for you s lovers, however, The Chicago Manual of Style now agrees with you. In their latest, 16th edition, they recommend the extra s. I, who cut my editing teeth on the 14th edition and came into my own with the 15th, prefer the old way. The choice is yours.
Some of you more journalistic- or PR-oriented writers may object to the Holy
Bible Chicago, and prefer instead The Associated Press Stylebook. That’s fine; just be consistent.
Fiction and non-fiction writers: It is my very strong opinion that you should use Chicago. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that The AP Stylebook is almost solely what they call “newsroom style.” There is a chapter on Sports lingo (including horse racing), and the latest edition gives you new ways to describe suicide. There is even a fashion chapter and a guide to spelling tsimmes.
But let’s get back to the apostrophe-s challenge with some comparison shopping (brackets and bolding are mine):
|The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition||The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition||The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook|
|Possessive of simple singular and plural words||(7:17): The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s [the family’s safe deposit box; the moss’s green hue]. The possessive of plural nouns…is formed by adding an apostrophe only [the Steins’ house]. Since feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions.||(7:15): The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s [the family’s safe deposit box; the moss’s green hue]. The possessive of plural nouns…is formed by adding an apostrophe only [the Steins’ house].||Simple singular noun: add apostrophe-s [the family’s safe deposit box]. Singular noun ending in s: add apostrophe-s unless the next word begins with an s [the moss’s green hue; the moss’ sublime green hue].|
|Possessive of singular words ending in a silent s||7:20: To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s. Opt for this practice only if you are comfortable with it and are certain that the s is indeed unpronounced [the aide de corps’ unusual schedule].||7:20: In a return to Chicago’s earlier practice, words and names ending in an unpronounced s form the possessive in the usual way (with the addition of an apostrophe and an s). This practice not only recognizes that the additional s is often pronounced but adds to the appearance of consistency with the possessive forms of other types of proper nouns [the aide de corps’s unusual schedule].||Add only an apostrophe [the aide de corps’ unusual schedule].|
|Possessive of all words ending in s||7:23: Those uncomfortable with the rules, exceptions, and options outlined above may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s….Though easy to apply, that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many [Thomas’ promises; business’ mystique].||7:21: An Alternative Practice: Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s….Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation in the majority of cases and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.||If it’s a proper noun, add only an apostrophe [Thomas’ promises; business’s mystique].|
Go to it!
Much more can be said about apostrophes, and I hope to cover these topics in future “Comedy Grammar” posts. Issues such as its/it’s, your/you’re, and the use of an apostrophe in a gerund phrase immediately come to mind. Stay tuned.
So there you have it. Never again shall you embarrass yourself or look like an amateur when you write. Just remember: You don’t need an apostrophe for a plural; you just need an s.
Let me know, either by email or in the Comments section which is hopefully below, what other grammar and writing issues you want to see covered in future posts. This blog is for you, and thus I want to meet your needs!
Want to improve your writing in 5 days?
Get a FREE email mini-course
- Writing techniques
- grammar that doesn't bite
- inspiration for the writing life