Possessives, Contractions, and Gerunds, Oh My!

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1851

by Clover Carroll

One of the most misunderstood elements of English grammar is the lowly apostrophe—not as lowly physically as the comma, but less respected and no less abused. The unusual word apostrophe comes from the Greek apostrophus, meaning a turning away or elision. Elision means to replace missing parts—letters or words. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, the apostrophe was originally used in English only for contractions, and –es was used to indicate possession, as in Williames or Laurenes.  The apostrophe was sometimes used to replace that e, and eventually became the preferred way to indicate possession.

These days, I see the apostrophe misused with increasing frequency—on signs, on menus, and in the press. “Holiday discount special’s” and “Mikes mince pie’s” will not get my dollar vote, nor would I enjoy “watching the star’s come out” or attending a “New Years Eve party.” And it really sets my teeth on edge to receive holiday greetings from “The Johnson’s”!

Like other small but necessary accoutrements of the language, the apostrophe conveys meaning as well as adding poetry and elegance to our expressions. Those who master the correct use of the apostrophe will not only write more accurately and precisely, but will also save themselves from embarrassment.

Most esses on the ends of words in English simply indicate the plural, or more than one of something. For example, at this season we enjoy holiday songs, Christmas trees, snowflakes (we hope), holiday parties, tidings of comfort and joy, and holiday greetings from the Johnsons. Plurals never require an apostrophe—thus “DVD’s for sale” is incorrect. When a word that already ends in an –s is pluralized, -es is added, but still with no apostrophe: “and may all your Christmases be white.” There are really only two linguistic situations in which an ending -s should be preceded by an apostrophe: possessives and contractions.

Let’s start with contractions, since they’re easiest: the apostrophe simply stands in for a missing letter or letters. “I would love to attend” becomes “I’d love to attend”;  “Santa is on his way” becomes “Santa’s on his way”; Three Notched Road becomes Three Notch’d Road, and “Home Alone” becomes “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” To clear up the frequent confusion of who’s and whose: “who’s on first?” is a contraction of “who is on first?”; by contrast, “whose” is a possessive pronoun used to inquire to whom something belongs, as in “whose holiday lights are the brightest?” A good rule of thumb is that unless the apostrophe is expressing possession, it must be replacing a missing letter. But we should appreciate contractions—where would Clement Moore or the unknown author of Deck the Halls have been without them? How dreary December would be without “ ’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…” or “ ’Tis the season to be jolly, falalalala lalalala!” And how would poets scan their lines without shortcuts like e’er and o’er? “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from Jesse’s root has sprung…”

In addition to marking contractions, the apostrophe is consistently placed before the –s to show possession (except for one major exception which will be discussed later). “What child is this who, laid to rest, in Mary’s lap is sleeping?” At this time of year we appreciate Santa’s helpers, Aunt Judy’s gingerbread men, and crossing over what should be Mechum’s River as to grandmother’s house we go (when you think about it, “Mechums River” makes no sense unless there were a lot of Mechums who lived in the river). Using the possessive apostrophe correctly can get a bit tricky, however, because the concept of possession is very broadly interpreted. We know that Johnnie’s coat keeps him warm, but what about “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep”?  The winter doesn’t precisely own the night; but in this context the apostrophe means it is a cold night of winter. We say that “he is my heart’s delight” to mean “he is the delight of my heart.” If you’ll allow me (Independence Day in December), we can find several examples of this abstract use of the possessive in our poetic national anthem:

“Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light/ What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?/ Whose broad stripes and bright stars/ Through the perilous fight/ O’er the ramparts we watched/ were so gallantly streaming?/ And the rocket’s red glare,the bombs bursting in air,/ Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there./ Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

The light “belongs to” the dawn, and the red glare to the rocket, in the sense that they are produced by them; it is the red glare of the rocket and the early light of the dawn. As you can see, expertise in the use of the apostrophe saves words and produces more graceful phrasing. As for “the twilight’s last gleaming,” this is a special case of the possessive called the gerund.

The gerund is one of those slippery grammatical concepts that tends to vacate the brain as soon as we leave English class. A gerund occurs when the participle, or –ing form of a verb, is used in the role of a noun in a sentence. For example, “the singing of the choir puts us in the holiday spirit.” Here, the word “singing” is a gerund, because it is used as a noun which performs the verb’s action of putting us in the holiday spirit. However, if I wanted to revise this sentence for added concision, I might say “the choir’s singing puts us in the holiday spirit.” Since singing is a noun and it is produced by the choir, the apostrophe is required to indicate possession. Other examples might be “the Sugarplum Fairy’s dancing is magical” or “let me know if my typing bothers you.” This is much less awkward than the more typical “let me know if me typing bothers you.” In the national anthem example, gleaming is a gerund, and it is produced by, or is of, the twilight.

But what about Francis’s fruit cake? When the word receiving the apostrophe -s already ends in an –s, the custom is to leave off the second –s and just end the word with an apostrophe, hanging out there high and dry all by itself—but looking rather erudite. For example, “Lois’s lilies” is cleaner as “Lois’ lilies” and “Mrs. Fields’s cookies” is easier as Mrs. Fields’ cookies (NOT Mrs. Field’s cookies! Unless the baker is named Mrs. Field.). This is a matter of stylistic choice, but most choose the single -s with the apostrophe.

The most common source of error and confusion is when to use the apostrophe with “it,” and when not to. So here’s the lowdown: “it’s” is the contraction of “it is,” and is the only time you should use an apostrophe with “it.” “Its” without the apostrophe is a possessive pronoun, similar to yours, ours, his, and hers, which don’t take apostrophes, either. Therefore, the possessive of “it” does NOT take an apostrophe. I realize that this is confusing, but I didn’t write the rules! Just remember that the use of the apostrophe with “it” is the opposite of what you would expect; if you remember that “it’s” means “it is,” then it follows that “belonging to it” must be expressed differently. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? The English language is a fickle thing, but one of its many charms is its inconsistencies.  “Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city…” I hope you have an apostrophic holiday!

For more pro-apostrophe propaganda and lots of hilarious examples, visit the Apostrophe Protection Society at http://www.apostrophe.org.uk.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! It’s about time someone who’s in-the-know wrote a clear and concise article about the apostrophe! I want to make copies and post them on every incorrect sign I see. Can we make this lesson mandatory in our schools? I’ll help!

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