The mark of turning away

I have noticed that intelligent people sometimes struggle with the apostrophe. Let’s try to clear it up, and right away, we have a good example of its proper use. Please note that my use of “its” includes no apostrophe. More on that in a minute.

The apostrophe is a sign, a symbol we use in English to show that letters or numbers have been omitted. That’s (that is) it. When I wrote “Let’s try to clear it up” just now I could have written “Let us try . . .” The apostrophe in “Let’s” shows the reader that a letter is missing from “us.” Haven’t = have not. We’ll = we will. Fill in the missing letters with an apostrophe to show that something is missing.

There’s (there is) another proper use of the apostrophe: to indicate possession. That’s (that is) all there is to it. Apostrophes are not that complicated. Use them to show that something is missing or to indicate possession.

Take, for example, the possessive pronoun “its”. The cat licked its paws. Not it’s paws. Just its. Boyoboy, this one shows up often. So many of us can’t seem to get into our head that the apostrophe is out of place there. Why do folks insist on inserting the apostrophe where it doesn’t (does not) belong? I can’t (cannot) explain this. Please desist.

Nor can I figure out why I’m (I am) seeing a trend of omitting an apostrophe when one is needed to show possession, as in my mothers house. Plop an apostrophe between mother and that final “s” to show possession. It is her house.

As with most rules, there is an exception. This one shows up fairly often. We do add an apostrophe to plurals of a single letter or number. Two examples: There are three middle c’s in this measure of music. The coaches sent their starting 5’s onto the court to begin the game.

Rules of grammar frustrate many of us, but they exist to enhance clarity, which is essential to understanding what it being written or said.

Don’t get me started on signs that people place in front of their homes, as in “The Miller’s” or “The Henderson’s.” Which Miller is THE Miller being cited here? And what is the sign referencing? Miller’s what? His or her house? Confusing. You want to show plural? Make it The Millers or The Hendersons.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word apostrophe originated in the 1580s, from Middle French apostrophe, which in turn came from Late Latin apostrophus, from earlier Greek apostrophos (prosoidia) “(the accent of) turning away,” thus, a mark showing where a letter has been omitted, from apostrephein “avert, turn away.” The web site Apostrophes 101 simplifies this: “The word apostrophe comes from the Greek word apóstrophos, which refers to a mark used in Greek to signify an omitted letter. It literally means a ‘mark of turning away’”.




One thought on “The mark of turning away

  1. Ah! It’s (it has) been DECADES since I took your editing course, but few courses have stood me in better stead in my life. Now, if we could just get people to not say “less” when they mean “fewer”, I’d not talk back to the TV so much.


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