This week I thought we’d have a rest from OSCOLA and have a look at a common grammar problem. Earlier in the year I wrote about apostrophes. They must be one of the most irksome points of grammar for those learning English. I wondered how many other languages presented the same difficulties. There are certainly apostrophes in French (I know, I’m usually the one missing them out!), but these are usually to replace letters that have been omitted. For example, before a vowel as in l’école or in the phrase qu’est-ce que c’est (the apostrophe replaces an ‘e’ in both instances here). In French this also signifies the elision in pronunciation, or slurring the words together as fast as possible – a more realistic description.
Apostrophes in other languages
Many languages that use the Latin alphabet use apostrophes in a similar way to English, in most cases to indicate that a letter has been omitted, although Dutch does use apostrophes to indicate plurals in certain cases. In some Slavic languages they are used to indicate emphasis or pronunciation, or in circumstances where we would use a hyphen. Apostrophes are also common in the written forms of many other world languages, but I have not been able to find an example of another language, in particular a language using a Latin alphabet, that uses an apostrophe to indicate possession. I’d love to know if my research is wrong though, so linguistics experts do let me know.
Five common problems
Recently, I’ve noticed that there are five regular instances of apostrophe use that cause problems, to both native and second language English writers. Often these are due to confusion over the use of apostrophes with possessive pronouns or apostrophes to replace letters in contractions (where words are omitted, usually to make the writing seem less formal). Remember, the general rule is that you don’t use an apostrophe for the pronouns: hers, its, ours, yours, theirs, whose. Here’s a few very simple examples where confusion can arise:
Its – belonging to it
The dog was playing with its ball.
It’s – contraction of it is
It’s sunny today.
Yours – belonging to you
Is this umbrella yours?
You’re – contraction of you are
You’re busy today.
Ones – plural of one (rarely used)
The people arrived in ones and twos. (horrible sentence – just used as an example!)
One’s – belonging to one
One is reading one’s book.
Who’s – contraction of who is or who has
Who’s reading this book?
Whose? – to whom or who?
Whose book is it? or Whose turn is it?
They’re – they are
They’re going away for Christmas.
Their – belonging to them
Their dog was playing with its ball.
Quick tip to check correct usage
If you’re unsure whether you’ve used the apostrophe correctly in a contraction (e.g. you’re, you’ve) then the trick is to read the sentence out loud using the full words. So, in the previous sentence the full wording is ‘if you are unsure whether you have’. Simples.