NOVEMBER 2000

The apostrophe (1)

Despite its size, the apostrophe is just as important as any other character used in the English language.
The apostrophe is often a misunderstood little fellow. Contrary to popular opinion, he is not there just to make our lives difficult; rather to serve two crucial functions. The first of these is discussed below. The second will be the subject of our next article.

Possession
The first function served by the apostrophe is the subject of widespread confusion even amongst native speakers. And yet, there are quite clearly defined rules governing its use. Learn these and you can't go wrong.

1. 's

This little label is added to a word to denote that something belongs to someone or something, provided the possessor is singular.
Example: the accountant's books, the company's marketing strategy Note that the amount of things possessed does not influence this rule whatsoever, i.e. there are several books, but only one strategy. Only the person or thing to which these belong is important, i.e. the one accountant and the one company.

2. s'

As you may have guessed, the change in place of the apostrophe means we are now dealing with plural possessors.
Example: the employers' association Here, the apostrophe added to the end of the plural possessor indicates that the association belongs to several employers.

3. 's again

However, as we know, there are some irregular plurals in English. For these, we revert to using the initial 's label, as these words do not themselves end naturally in an s.
Example: women's magazine, children's toys
This denotes that the items belong to the women and the children respectively.

4. s's?

For singular nouns already ending in an s, as is often the case with people's names, there is some grey area. Both James's wife and James' wife are correct. According to the rule, as James is only one person, we would use the former. The latter, however, is considered to be simpler and clearer.

5. it's / its

This frequently used example brings both functions of the apostrophe into play. The possessive pronouns mine, yours, hers, his, ours, theirs, whose and its never take an apostrophe. Therefore we write, "the dog had found its bone". When written with an apostrophe, it's is the contracted form of it is. Whenever tempted to use the apostrophe, be sure you do want to say it is, which is evidently not the case here.

These are the essential rules for the use of the apostrophe in possessive cases. Some other general tips will help in areas of confusion.

a) Always use the apostrophe when talking about time periods, such as in "one month's holiday" or "four hours' delay" as they serve a possessive function. Consider that the holiday belongs to the month and the delay belongs to the hours, however absurd this may seem!

b) The apostrophe must also be applied in cases such as "the text must go to the printer's" or "our rates are lower than other companies'". This is because the implied sense is "the printer's firm" and "other companies' rates".

c) For phrases and joint ownership, put the apostrophe at the end.
Example: "the parent company's management", or "Helen and Brian's new products" provided, of course, the thing possessed belongs to both. Note that "Helen's and Brian's new products" means that both people have made separate new discoveries!

Joanne O'Donnell