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Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble
Newsflash: apostrophes are not optional. If they ever become so, the writer-reader relationship will be one step closer to dysfunctional. Still, many
casual scribblers would rather not be bothered.
Apostrophes are a lot easier for those who slow down and do what it takes to get them right. For instance, to show possession with singular nouns that
end in s, all you have to do is add ’s (girl’s, farm’s, love’s). Most
people can handle that. Admittedly, trouble arises with certain other kinds of nouns. We will deal with some of those problems in weeks to come.
Today we’ll examine singular nouns that end in s, with lens, cactus, and series as examples. Such words can
become confusing when they are made plural, then made possessive.
To form the singular possessive form of a word like lens, just add ’s: the lens’s reflection. But how about more
than one lens’s reflection? The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe. You can’t go wrong if you take this in two steps. First write the plural, lenses. Then
add an apostrophe … and there you are: the lenses’ reflection.
It’s different with cactus, because the plural is cacti. The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun not ending in s, add ’s. So, depending on your
meaning, you would write either the cactus’s spines for one cactus* or the cacti’s spines for two or more cacti.
Now consider series, which is the same word whether singular or plural. If a scientist has conducted a sequence of lab experiments, we would write
about the series’s outcome. Because we mean one series,
we add ’s, just as we would do with any singular noun.*
But what if the scientist then ran another cycle of tests and compared it to the first? Then we’d be reporting on the two series’ results. Because we mean more than one series, we add only an apostrophe to series, just as we would do with any
plural noun ending in s.
*Note: Although we endorse ’s for all possessive singular nouns ending in s, not everyone agrees. Some writers and editors add only
an apostrophe: the bus’ route, my boss’ orders.
Then there’s the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally backs the ’s but prescribes only an apostrophe when the word
that follows begins with s. This means that the Associated Press would recommend the cactus’s needles, but also the cactus’ spines because of the first s in spines.
Does that seem odd to you, too?
Because of the e-newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
1. That specie’s/species’/species’s status was changed to endangered.
2. McDermott is the people’s/peoples’ choice.
3. Those company’s/companies’/companie’s profits are way up.
4. Her many dress’s/dress’/dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.
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Changes Coming to Our GrammarBook.com Website
We want to alert all our newsletter readers and visitors to our website that we will soon begin updating the English Rules section of GrammarBook.com to reflect the contents of the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. These revisions will take place over the next couple of months.
We researched the leading reference books on American English grammar and punctuation including The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and many others. As before, we will provide rules, guidance, and examples based on areas of general agreement among these authorities. Where the authorities differ, we will emphasize guidance and provide options to follow based on your purpose in writing, with this general advice: be consistent.
Following are more selections from a perverse set of rules that are guilty of the very mistakes they seek to prevent. English teachers, students, scientists, and writers have been circulating these self-contradictory rules for more than a century.
Rules for Writing Good: Writing Tips
1. Don't overuse "quotation marks."
2. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (if the truth be told) superfluous.
3. Contractions won't, don't, and can't help your writing voice.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. That species’s status was changed to endangered. (but some would endorse species’)
2. McDermott is the people’s choice.
3. Those companies’ profits are way up.
4. Her many dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.