English As She Is Writ - part fifteen

The apostrophe part two - a sense of belonging

The apostrophe does a lot if hard work considering it’s a very small punctuation mark. In addition to indicating where letters have been omitted from composite words, it also conveys possession: the pen that belongs to Peter is more efficiently spoken and written as Peter’s pen.

English is unusual in having a sign to indicate possession. It helps to make English a very fluid language when spoken, but it causes difficulties in writing. However the rules are simple once we’ve dealt with the exceptions. And the exceptions are pronouns – the little words that stand in place of the names of people and things.

Pronouns don’t use an apostrophe to indicate possession; instead each has a unique form. We’ll take a detour into the whole area of pronouns. Here they are:

  • I               me         my          mine
  • thou        thee       thy         thine
  • he            him        his          his
  • she          her         her         hers
  • it              it            its           its                                          
  • we           us           our         ours
  • you         you         your       yours
  • they       them      their      theirs

The first column – I , thou, and so on – are the forms used when the pronoun concerned is the subject of the sentence; the second column shows the form used after a preposition, or when the pronoun is the object; the third column is the adjectival form; the fourth column is the predicate adjectival form, used after or without a noun. (Mine and thine are also used instead of my and thy before a noun that begins with a vowel: thine eyes, for instance). Luckily we don’t need to know what all those technical terms mean: most of us use pronouns without any trouble because we learn them when very young. Here are a few examples that demonstrate the different forms and how they are used.

  • Thou gavest the dagger to me. I returned it to thee. It is now thy dagger. It is thine.
  • I gave the dagger to thee. Thou returnst it to me. It is now my dagger. It is mine.
  • We gave the dagger to her. She returned it to us. It is now our dagger. It is ours.
  • She gave the dagger to us. We returned it to her. It is now her dagger. It is hers.

I’ve included thou and its various forms because it isn’t quite obsolete – it’s still used in speech in parts of the north of England, for instance – and because understanding the forms of thou help when reading Shakespeare, the King James bible, and other works from earlier centuries.

Pronouns never use an apostrophe to indicate possession. In fact pronouns never use an apostrophe for anything.  A quick example to demonstrate the difference between its and it’s:

The parrot is displaying its plumage. It is displaying its plumage. It’s displaying its plumage.

With pronouns out of the way, the matter is simple: possession (and connected concepts such as attribution and close association) can always be indicated by an apostrophe. And the crucial thing to remember is that the number of things being possessed is irrelevant: all that matters is whether the person or thing doing the possessing is singular or plural.

If the thing or person doing the possessing is singular and has a singular form that ends in a letter other than s, then you add an apostrophe and then an s.

  • Peter’s toenails
  • The cat’s whiskers
  • A soldier’s duty
  • The vicar’s tea party

If the thing or person doing the possessing is singular and ends in an s, then you can either add an apostrophe after the s, or add an apostrophe and then an additional s: which you do depends on which sounds most natural.

  • James’s car
  • The mistress’s instructions
  • Moses’ commandments
  • Xerxes’ military tactics
  • Henry Rogers’ childish antics

If the thing or person doing the possessing is in the plural and has a plural form that ends in s, then you add an apostrophe.

  • The mistresses’ instructions
  • The Rogerses’ dinner party
  • The cars’ headlights
  • The chimpanzees’ behaviour

If the thing or person doing the possessing is in the plural and has a plural form that ends in a letter other than s, then you add an apostrophe followed by an s.

  • The children’s games
  • The mice’s squeaking
  • The oxen’s heavy burden

Apart from a very few words (for instance child, mouse and ox, whose plural forms are as shown in the examples above) the way to form the plural is to add an s. I may have mentioned this before but here goes again: you never use an apostrophe when forming a plural. The apostrophe is a hard-working punctuation mark and it has enough to do indicating elision and possession without being roped in to making plurals. People think it’s OK to add an apostrophe to form the plural of foreign words and dates, for example: pizza’s, 1930’s. This is unnecessary and confusing. You just add an s: pizzas, 1930s. 

In the next part of this blog I’ll explain all about inverted commas, or quotation marks: “these little marks in the air,” as I never call them. And that will complete my review of the main punctuation marks. The blog, however, may well continue.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.