Fishing for tadpoles: putting apostrophes in their place

It’s that time of year again, when we wave goodbye to the lazy, hazy days of the summer holidays and head back to school or work. The start of a new academic year, however, is always exciting, with the promise of fresh challenges, interesting new activities and, perhaps, even a new school and new friends.

What better way to kick off the new term than with a quick lesson in… apostrophes.

At Words&Pictures, we create and deliver a wide range of communication channels, in partnership with schools and businesses across the country. As senior sub-editor and proofreader, it’s my job to make sure that everything we produce is free from any spelling or grammatical errors. And punctuation, such as the apostrophe, is necessary for good grammar.

One of our clients obviously regards apostrophes as a particular headache. They have a whole section in their style guide devoted to what they affectionately call “little tadpoles” which, in their opinion, all too often “wriggle where they want”! (By the way, a style guide shows someone like myself how a school or business prefers to write certain words, or use different forms of punctuation.)

Apostrophes can be used in a number of ways. Contraction, or the omission of letters and numbers, is just one example. Think: can’t instead of cannot, he’s instead of he is, wasn’t instead of was not, class of ’96 instead of 1996. Apostrophes are also used to denote possession and form some plurals. Let’s take a look at some of the rules…

SENSE OF BELONGING

An important use of the apostrophe is to show possession. For example, Emma’s house, the children’s toys, in one month’s time (but, in two months’ time).

Of course, many common nouns end in the letter s (class, bus etc). As do quite a few proper nouns (Words&Pictures, James). There are conflicting theories about how to show possession in these instances. Some writers and editors add an apostrophe plus s (’s) to common nouns ending in s (the class’s students), and a standalone apostrophe to proper nouns ending in s, for example ‘Words&Pictures’ publications’, reasoning that you wouldn’t say ‘Words&Pictures’s publications’. But most people would pronounce an additional s in ‘James’s job’.

My own rule of thumb is to write something as you would say it. It’s also important to be consistent – once you decide which option you prefer, stick with it, whether that’s on your blog or in an essay.

On the other hand, the apostrophe in ‘it’s’ does not denote possession. ‘It’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, for example ‘it’s time to go back to school’. The possessive form, ‘its’, is used in sentences such as ‘the cat licked its paw’. Sometimes I find the easiest way to decide which form to use is to say the sentence out loud. You wouldn’t say, ‘the cat licked it is (it’s) paw.’ Once again, if it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.

THE PLURAL FORM

Yes, ‘apostrophe’s can be confusing’ (incorrect) / ‘apostrophes can be confusing’ (correct), but it really is worth getting to grips with how they should be used. As we’ve seen, there are many do’s and don’ts. And, there is always an exception to every rule. Here, when the word ‘do’ is used as a plural noun, ‘dos’ lacks meaning, whereas an apostrophe adds clarity. The same goes if you need to pluralise a letter of the alphabet, as in ‘mind your p’s and q’s’ or ‘dot your i’s and cross your t’s’. Without apostrophes, neither statement would make sense.

Some of my own pet hates include the incorrect use of the plural form of words such as 1990s, CDs and GCSEs. These are often written as 1990’s, CD’s and GCSE’s. Another frequent mistake that drives me round the bend – figuratively speaking, of course – is the traffic sign, ‘Unsuitable for HGV’s’! As there is more than one HGV on the road, the correct usage here is the plural form, HGVs, and not the possessive.

Social media has led many people to relax grammatical rules. But, this should not apply to the classroom or workplace. Good grammar and the correct use of punctuation – including apostrophes – may well set job, college or university candidates apart from the rest.

There are lots of excellent websites where you can find out more, including GrammarBook and the University of Sussex’s punctuation section.

In the meantime, tweet us your personal apostrophe nightmare @EducationWandP

Coincidentally, one of my favourite childhood activities used to be fishing for tadpoles, which is something I now do at work every day. I’d better get a wriggle on…

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